Finley expected to detail EI changes Thursday

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley is expected to put an end to speculation about the government's planned changes to employment insurance when she holds a news conference Thursday morning.

Officials from her department are holding a technical briefing ahead of her "important announcement" at 10:30 a.m. ET in Ottawa.

It is likely that Finley will provide details on how the Conservatives plan to reform EI, a plan that was broadly laid out in the March budget, but was short on specifics. Bill C-38, the budget implementation bill that is currently making its way through Parliament, gives cabinet the authority to change EI qualification criteria through regulations instead of legislation but the government hasn't yet said how it intends to change, for example, the definitions of "suitable work" or "reasonable efforts" to find employment.

The government has said it wants to remove disincentives to working that it says are built into the system, but Finley has been tight-lipped on how the government will do that and has only promised that the changes would be announced "soon."

Other ministers have been speaking more freely, however, and giving hints about what is to come. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told CBC News in Prince Edward Island on Tuesday that the high number of employers that are turning to foreign workers because they can't find Canadians to fill vacancies is a problem the government wants to fix.

"There's no sense in bringing in people from halfway around the world to do work that local EI recipients are qualified to do," Kenney said.

In the absence of details about the changes, there has been speculation about whether claimants would be asked to move or travel long distances to accept jobs, at the risk of losing their benefits if they decline.

Finley has said people won't be forced to move far from home, but Kenney hinted they might be asked to commute.

"I think the idea is, that within your own local community, within say an hour's drive or so, if there are unemployed workers receiving EI and they're not applying for jobs that are available at their skill level then there's a mismatch," he said, "And we want to solve that problem."

Kenney said that in Cape Breton, for example, employers such as McDonald's and Tim Horton's are bringing in workers from the Philippines when there is 13 per cent unemployment in the region and "people have done that kind of retail work."

"There's something wrong here. We need to connect the workers with the employers, that's the intention of the announcement," he said.

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield also referred to the hour-long drive estimate that Kenney used.

"People that can find employment within an hour's drive of their home, that would be reasonable in our opinion. Hopefully people will be able to fill some positions that is appropriate to their skill level to find meaningful employment," Ashfield said in a Tuesday interview.

"It's not to force people to go to Alberta, it's not to force people to, you know, drive for four hours, or move away from their home community. That's not the intent at all," Ashfield added.

But another minister, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency Minister Bernard Valcourt, cast doubt on the one-hour estimate and said he doesn't expect people will have to travel an hour to take a job in order to qualify for employment insurance benefits in the future.

Valcourt said in a CBC Radio interview that people, especially in rural areas, already "travel a certain reasonable distance" to work.

"It's the custom and if the economic fact of life of the region is for people to work in their community and the surrounding communities I don't think it would be proper to force people to travel to other areas of the province to get a job," the New Brunswick MP said.

Valcourt said the government's objective is to connect people who want to work with available jobs.

Talk of changes to the EI program has particularly resonated in Atlantic Canada where many people are involved in seasonal work. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale said any changes are of "grave concern" to her province.

She said she has expressed concerns to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and has talked to some of his ministers.

"EI reform will have a significant impact on labour and how labour moves within this province," she said.

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