The Conservatives are coming under fire over the fine print of their employment insurance reforms now that seasonal workers are turning to the program for the first time since changes were made over the summer.
The government promised the changes would encourage more Canadians to take part-time jobs while on EI. But some workers are discovering the new EI rules leave them worse off.
"They had it buttered up and it sounded so good, until it hit," said Irene McMullin, a seasonal fish plant worker in Bras d'Or, N.S.
Ms. McMullin is one of many seasonal workers who have been giving their local MPs an earful, and the opposition is raising these individual stories daily in the House of Commons.
The opposition argues that federal EI changes aimed at removing "disincentives" to work are backfiring, leading some recipients to decide that working a few extra part-time hours isn't worthwhile.
The Working While on Claim pilot project was one of the least controversial changes in the federal budget, and won praise from the opposition when it was announced.
The nationwide program was first mentioned in the March budget and then formally launched in August by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.
"It will allow claimants to keep more of what they earn, ensuring they always benefit by accepting available work," Ms. Finley said at the time.
Seasonal workers and the opposition are learning the promise didn't mean what they thought. The promise left the impression that EI recipients would "always" be better off in the new system compared to the old system. Yet the government now says it meant that a worker is always better off working more than not working at all.
Before August, EI recipients could earn money through part-time work without having it clawed back as long as it wasn't more than 40 per cent of their benefits. Under the new rules, 50 cents of every dollar earned is clawed back, and part-time work cannot exceed 90 per cent of weekly insurable earnings.
Debate over the changes dominated Question Period on Thursday, as both the NDP and the Liberals led off with the issue.
Ms. Finley insisted the changes will encourage more people to return to the work force.
"The changes we made are to help Canadians to get part-time work to make sure that there are not barriers to that because we know that getting part-time work often leads to full-time work," she said.
"I can assure members that the vast majority of Canadians who are on EI, when they work part time, they will be better off."
The government website explaining the changes outlined scenarios in which individuals would be better off under the new rules, but Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner says the figures are not realistic. He said the federal examples assume a recipient has found part-time work at more than $20 an hour, when part-time work is likely to be closer to the minimum wage.
The Cape Breton MP called the government's handling of the file "slimy."
Mr. Cuzner said anyone who makes about $300 or less part time while on EI will be worse off under the new rules, and he is calling on Ms. Finley to scrap the new program.
"She's just in total disregard for the hurt that's being placed on these people," he said. "When you're getting by on a minimum wage job and you're taking a minimum wage job to help augment your income, you lose $40 out of the $80 that you make, that's going to have an impact and it's placing hardship on a lot of families."