The Conservative government's employment-insurance changes will include special rules for repeat users of the program, requiring them to accept lower-paying jobs than Canadians who are using EI for the first time.
Facing political pressure to cough up the details of its EI changes, the government will outline its plans much sooner than originally stated. Details are starting to circulate and sources have confirmed one aspect of the change will relate to wages.
Sources say the new rules will clearly define how much less pay Canadians on EI should be prepared to accept in comparison to their last job. One option under consideration would allow first-time EI recipients to turn down a job and remain on EI if it pays less than 90 per cent of their previous wage. However, that percentage would decline for repeat users of the program, possibly to 85 or 80 per cent.
A policy that takes into account a person's historic use of EI will most directly affect seasonal workers who use EI year after year. That risks igniting regional tensions, particularly in Atlantic Canada where there are a higher proportion of those workers than in the rest of the country.
The Globe has also learned that Ottawa wants to toughen up enforcement of the EI rules so that Canadians who refuse available jobs in their area will lose their benefits.
The Conservative government's omnibus budget bill, C-38, removes key sections of the Employment Insurance Act that relate to the type of jobs EI recipients can refuse as unsuitable. New rules will be introduced later by regulation after the bill is passed.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has previously said those details could be months away, but she is now expected to outline Ottawa's plans much sooner.
The changes would appear to rule out the more extreme examples recently cited by the opposition, such as engineers being forced to accept a job at Tim Hortons or teachers picking fruit. Instead, the government's plan will include a focus on repeat users of EI.
Federal statistics show that while seasonal EI claims represent 27.3 per cent of all claims nationally, they make up a much higher percentage in the four Atlantic provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island are tied for the highest percentage, where seasonal workers represented 52 per cent of all EI claims in 2010-11.
Though he did not discuss EI changes related to wages, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney did confirm Thursday that the government is looking to better enforce rules so that people on EI are cut off from benefits if they are not taking reasonable job offers in their geographic area.
The government has previously said its plans will include a closer link between EI and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Ottawa recently announced that employers will be allowed to pay foreign workers up to 15-per-cent less than the average wage paid to Canadians, but Mr. Kenney rejected claims by labour groups that the Conservatives are moving to drive down wages.
He notes that there are numerous examples of employers who are offering high wages to no avail.
"Restaurants are paying $25 [an hour]and more for line cooks in restaurants in Calgary, so why should any cook in Calgary be sitting at home receiving EI benefits instead?" he asked. "It's a violation of the principles of the EI program and it makes no sense why we should bring someone in from halfway around the world when someone is down the proverbial block collecting EI benefits who's qualified to do the work."
NDP and Liberal MPs continued to press the government in Question Period on Thursday to outline its EI reforms, insisting MPs should not be asked to approve a budget bill without a full understanding of the implications.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told reporters he is very concerned about the combined effect of EI changes and the continued expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
"What they're doing is this: They're bringing in people at a lower wage, deprived of their full rights," he said. "It's another factor – like certain free-trade agreements – pushing wages and living conditions."