Canadians on EI will be expected to stomach a long commute under new rules the Conservative government is preparing to announce.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley will soon outline the details of her government's Employment Insurance reforms, as her fellow ministers add to the confusion over what exactly the Tories are planning.
About half a dozen cabinet ministers have offered hints at the new policy, making various, sometimes contradictory statements about the government's new expectations for EI recipients. The latest to weigh in is Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, who represents the riding of Fredericton.
"People that can find employment within an hour's drive of their home, that would be reasonable in our opinion," Mr. Ashfield told CBC Radio. The average one-way commute in Canada is 26 minutes. The minister was then specifically asked whether new regulations would allow EI recipients to take a pass on a job offer it is more than an hour away from their home.
"Yes. That's exactly true," Mr. Ashfield replied. Yet Conservative officials later said the minister was speaking in "generalities" in an effort to make the point that EI recipients will not be expected to move. Officials acknowledged the rules will aim to quantify the criteria around how far and wide EI claimants should be job hunting.
Currently, an unemployed worker's decision to restrict a job search to a specific geographic region is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Disputes have been resolved by an independent board and the Federal Court.
The Conservative government has triggered intense speculation about the future of Canada's EI system with the release of its omnibus budget bill, C-38. The legislation erases key sections of the Employment Insurance Act dealing with the criteria unemployed workers can cite for refusing an available job on the grounds that it is not suitable.
The government says it will replace those legislative rules with new measures via regulation after the budget bill is approved by Parliament.
The acceptable radius of a job hunt is one of the most debated and subjective sections of the current EI rules, given the wide variety of factors Canadians face across the country, including traffic congestion and public transit options.
The changes are expected to be felt most directly in Atlantic Canada, where there are higher proportions of Canadians who turn to EI year after year because of seasonal work.
Alvin Keenan, a 58-year-old potato farmer in Souris, PEI, employs as many as 30 seasonal workers to harvest potatoes each year between May and October. For the rest of the year, most of them are eligible for EI, Mr. Keenan said.
He said he thinks that the distance people have to drive for work should be discretionary. "I think it's a hard thing to put a number on," he said.
Driving or taking transit for an hour in the Greater Toronto Area is very different from driving for an hour on the island, he said, pointing to harsh weather conditions in the winter.
Mr. Keenan said cracking down on EI may win votes in areas where there's low unemployment, but it's the opposite where he lives. "It tears people apart in an area where we have a lot of seasonal jobs and unemployment [insurance]has been a piece of security that people are fortunate to have when it's necessary," he said.
One seasonal worker, Rodrigue Martin, has worked at Camp Beauséjour during the summer months for the past decade. His sister owns the Shediac, N.B. campground and employs him to do maintenance work for five to six months of the year, and the rest of the time the 67-year-old collects EI on top of his old age pension, he said.
Although he owns a car, he says it's unreasonable for the government to think that he can commute an hour for work. In his case, he says, it would likely mean commuting to Moncton. "If they pay minimum wage, I can't afford that," he said. "I'm going to put it all in my [gas]tank so I don't make any money."