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New EI rules will force workers to accept lower pay

People wait at a human resources centre in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody

The federal government is tightening Employment Insurance eligibility with new rules on what kind of work jobless Canadians will need to accept in order to receive benefits.

The government says it will put strict definitions on what constitutes “suitable employment” and what the unemployed must do to find a job in order to get off EI.

The changes means Canadians will be treated differently depending on how often they have collected EI benefits in the past, or how long they are currently receiving benefits.

For so-called long-tendered workers who have been mostly employed the past 10 years, they need to accept a job within their usual occupation as long as it pays at least 90 per cent of their previous hourly wage.

The worker must become less choosy and willing to take a lower-paying job — within 80 per cent of their previous pay — after 18 weeks being on the system, however.

“We want to help Canadians who want to work get back to work,” said Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.

For frequent EI claimants, the rules will be far stricter, the government says.

Canadians who have been on the system at least three times for a total of 60 weeks over the past five years will be expected to take a similar job that pays at least 80 per cent of the previous rate. But that’s only for six weeks — after that they would be required to take any job they are qualified for at 70 per cent of the previous pay.

In most circumstances, Canadians will need to accept an available job that is within an hour’s commute of their home.

Government officials say it is difficult to assess how much the new rules will save the government, but expect that fewer than one per cent of the about 500,000 claimants will be cut off.

The Harper government first said in the spring 2012 budget that it would “clarify” who can continue to receive benefits, taking aim at people with a long history of claiming EI benefits.

The government’s omnibus budget implementation bill contains measures to overhaul key conditions for EI claimants, but does not provide much detail about how the new rules would work.

Statistics Canada says 549,000 people were getting regular EI benefits in March, a figure little changed from the previous month. In fact, the agency says, the number of beneficiaries has been relatively stable since last September.

There were more people receiving benefits in March in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick, but the number fell in Alberta.

To receive benefits, individuals must first submit a claim and the number of claims provides an indication of the number of people who could become beneficiaries.

Nationally, the number of initial and renewal claims totalled 234,200 in March, essentially unchanged for the sixth consecutive month.

Provincially, claims fell 2.9 per cent in Ontario, 2.6 per cent in British Columbia, and 1.7 per cent in Alberta, while they rose 2.6 per cent in Quebec and 1.1 per cent in New Brunswick.

The April unemployment rate was 7.3 per cent.

Uncertainty about the EI changes has prompted an outcry from some Atlantic premiers, opposition critics and organized labour.

The NDP says the murky approach to EI changes is a sign that transparency in policy making has disappeared.

“Transparency has not been their strong suit here,” said MP Peggy Nash. “It’s not been a good process.”

Finley’s department has stopped sending Statistics Canada key and current information about how much federal money is flowing to each of the provinces for EI claimants, The Canadian Press has learned.

Three tables normally produced with Statistics Canada’s monthly EI summary are now “frozen,” according to the agency website.

But the government sas it plans to send more job-availability information to unemployed people in the hope of finding them a job. The budget included $21 million over two years to set up a new bureaucracy for this work.

Statistics Canada said Wednesday there were about 237,000 unfilled jobs in February. That’s about one available job for every 5.8 unemployed workers.

The federal Conservatives have frequently expressed frustration at the number of jobs going unfilled even as the pool of unemployed workers remains large, but Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, issued a release saying the Statistics Canada numbers rebut the government’s contention.

“Despite such evidence the government wants to ram through parliament dramatic changes to Employment Insurance that are fundamentally wrong and unfair to working people,” said Georgetti.