EI rules need 'teeth' to get people to work, Finley says

The federal government is trying to toughen up employment insurance rules so there are fewer disincentives to unemployed people taking jobs, according to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who clarified Tuesday that Canadians won't be forced to take jobs outside their skill areas.

She was questioned repeatedly in the House of Commons Tuesday about the proposed changes to the employment insurance program that are contained in the budget implementation bill, including alterations to the definition of suitable work.

Bill C-38 proposes giving cabinet the power to decide criteria for defining what constitutes suitable employment and what constitutes reasonable efforts to find a job. It also removes two clauses from the existing Employment Insurance Act, clauses that say work is not suitable if it is in the claimant's usual job but at a lower rate of earnings or if it is outside of the claimant's normal line of work.

But the bill does not outline what the new criteria are going to be or when they would take effect, and opposition MPs have been demanding more information from the minister.

During question period, Finley said repeatedly that the government is making changes to address Canada's "unprecedented" skills and labour shortage.

"The changes that we are proposing will help the unemployed find jobs in their local area and they will be also at the same time addressing the skills shortages faced by Canadian employers," she said. "Canadians will be expected to take jobs appropriate to their skill level in their area."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also said that the skills shortage "is going to be a serious concern in the Canadian economy in the years to come" and that the government wants to provide Canadians with the opportunities to get back to work.

Finley told Evan Solomon, host of Power & Politics, that details about the changes will be made public "soon" and she accused opposition MPs of fear-mongering when they say people might be forced to take jobs away from their homes or outside their skill set.

The government isn't expecting an unemployed teacher to take a job picking fruit, she said, but Finley still didn't shed any more light on how the government will define suitable work for EI claimants.

"We haven't announced those details yet. We want to make sure the legislation gets through first. But it will be suitable or appropriate to the individual's qualifications and within their geographic area," she said.

Finley said there are places in Canada where hundreds of people are unemployed yet employers can't get people to take the jobs they have to offer and are bringing in temporary foreign workers as a result.

"We do know that the EI system, as it stands, in some cases is an obstacle to Canadians accepting those jobs. We want to get rid of those obstacles," she said. Structures within the system make EI "attractive" and in some cases, the recipients are more inclined to stay on EI than work, said Finley.

"In some cases, people are better off not working. We've got to take that away," she said. "In some cases, they don't know that the jobs exist, so we're bringing in a whole system to help them find out about the jobs, how to apply for the jobs and how to get the jobs and keep them."

The existing EI rules require people to make reasonable efforts to find a job and to accept suitable jobs, Finley said, "but the legislation as it stands really doesn't have any teeth and so we've got to toughen it up so people know what's expected of them, so they know what their responsibilities are when they're on EI," she said.

Opposition MPs say the government must be clearer about what changes it intends to make and they have been expressing concerns about what the changes could mean for their constituents.

"They have not defined suitable employment. So we believe this is worthy of a debate," the NDP's finance critic Peggy Nash said at a news conference earlier in the day. The NDP announced a new public outreach campaign to highlight some of the many policy changes contained in the massive budget bill.

"They want to make a very significant change and we believe this discussion should be open to Canadians. And yet this will be one clause in the hundreds of clauses that get rammed through the finance committee like that," Nash said, snapping her fingers.

The budget implementation bill also overhauls the environmental assessment regime, increases the age of eligibility for Old Age Security from 65 to 67, and proposes amendments to dozens of others laws. It passed second reading on Monday night and now moves to the finance committee to be studied.

The NDP said it's problematic that Finley will have the discretion to decide whether a job is suitable for someone and that there is no definition in the bill.

"If they have something in mind they should tell us now, before we vote on it," the NDP's Guy Caron said at the news conference with Nash and NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.

The MPs also continued to criticize Finance Minister Jim Flaherty for his comments Monday when he suggested the unemployed should be prepared to take any job available.

"There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job," he told reporters. "I drove a taxi, I refereed hockey. You do what you have to do to make a living."

Opposition MPs immediately called his comments insulting and Cullen said Tuesday that the government is acting like "a nanny state."

Nash said unemployed workers shouldn't be forced to abandon their skill sets to take a job they are overqualified for and that the government should instead be focused on helping Canadians find jobs that match their qualifications.

Liberal House leader Marc Garneau and Liberal Senator Jim Munson also held a news conference Tuesday saying their party will also be working to inform Canadians about the implications of the budget bill.

Garneau said there are "profound implications" of the upcoming changes to employment insurance.

"We are only asking for one thing: what are the criteria that are going to be used? Will there be a little book that says these are the circumstances under which you can cut off somebody's employment insurance if they refuse to take an alternative job?" said Garneau.

Canadians want to understand what's going to happen to them if they lose their job, he said.

"I think that's extremely important and at the moment it's completely vague," said Garneau.