The federal Conservatives are under fire for new changes to the employment insurance system that put more pressure on unemployed Canadians to take lower paying jobs, sometimes in unrelated fields of employment.

The changes to the employment insurance system are designed to get unemployed Canadians to accept "suitable" jobs and come down especially hard on so-called repeat claimants, including seasonal workers such as fishermen and teachers.

"In short, we want to help Canadians who want to work," Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said on Thursday while summing up the reforms.

"These changes are about empowering unemployed workers, helping them get back into the workforce and getting them into areas where they are most needed," Finley said on Thursday.

Opposition parties and labour advocates said the changes go too far, claiming the Conservatives are punishing Canadians who are left unemployed by a shaky job market.

"We have six times the number of unemployed in Canada as we have jobs that are available. For most unemployed people, they can't even get access to EI," NDP critic Peggy Nash told CTV's Power Play.

Nash said only about 40 per cent of Canada's 1.4 million unemployed workers receive benefits. The new changes will make it even harder to access the EI system, she said.

The sweeping regulatory changes introduced on Thursday will also require employers to search for local unemployed workers before going offshore to hire temporary employees.

EI recipients will receive job alerts twice a day, as opposed to the current rate of three jobs per week. Finley said the majority of $21 million in additional spending will go toward improving the job alert system.

The changes represent a major shift in the focus of employment insurance. Instead of functioning as an insurance service, which all workers pay into and which provides a cushion for the newly unemployed, it will transition to more of an employment service that works to quickly re-inject unemployed Canadians back into the workforce.

Finley said the new focus is about helping Canadians understand their responsibilities while on EI and helping them get back to work.

Because EI currently pays recipients 55 per cent of their former wage, and the changes will require them to only take jobs that pay 70 per cent or more of their previous salary, Finley said there will be a new financial incentive for Canadians to get back to work.

"Canadians on EI will be required to accept available work and will always earn more money working than collecting EI," she said.

EI recipients divided into categories

Under the new rules, most of which are expected to be in place by 2013, employment insurance recipients will be treated differently depending on how long they have been receiving benefits and how often they have accessed the system in the past.

Those who have been on EI the longest would have to accept a wider range of jobs than so-called long-tenured workers on EI for the first time.

In most cases, people on EI would be required to accept a job within an hour's drive of their home, if it paid within 70 per cent of their previous job.

Under the proposed changes, EI recipients will be divided into the following categories:

  • Long-tenured workers: Those who have paid into the system for seven of the past 10 years and collected EI for less than 35 weeks in the past five years.
  • Frequent claimants: Anyone who has made three or more claims and collected benefits for more than 60 weeks in the past five years.
  • Occasional claimants: All other EI recipients, including young and new workers with up to six years of steady employment who have never collected EI.

Long-tenured workers and occasional claimants can begin their time on EI by holding out for employment paying 90 per cent of their previous salary.

After 18 weeks, long-tenured workers must accept work at 80 per cent their previous salary. Occasional claimants must do so after 12 weeks of unemployment. After 18 weeks they must accept work paying 70 per cent of their previous salary.

Frequent claimants must take work at 80 per cent of their previous salary for the first six weeks of unemployment. After that, they must accept any offer of at least 70 per cent.

An EI recipient who turns down a job that is within the acceptable pay scale will have to prove why it isn't a suitable offer.

Finley used the example of a roofer who typically goes on EI when work slows down in the winter, then returns to work in the spring. Under the new system, that roofer would be required to search for work in the off-season in the residential construction industry, where his skills would be applicable.

"By taking temporary employment he will benefit from maintaining his attachment to the workforce, enhancing his skill set and earning more than he would have received on EI benefits," Finley said.

The same goes for a laid-off heavy equipment operator working in the oil sands, who would be pressured to move into the construction sector.

She said a laid-off teacher or scientist would not be required to take a job in the fast-food industry, because the wage wouldn't fit into the 70 per cent threshold and they would be better off working in a field that made use of their skills.

However, Finley didn't give a clear answer when asked whether a seasonal fish plant worker from Newfoundland would be required to take a job in the fast-food industry, but only keep the job for six months until they returned to work at the fish plant.

Earle McCurdy of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union said the changes appear designed to marginalize seasonal workers, while Newfoundland Premier Kathy Dunderdale said the new rules do not seem to take into consideration workers in remote communities.

"In a province where we don't have public transportation, if you were working a minimum wage job and you have to travel 40 miles away ... to work at another $10-an-hour job, is that sensible? Is that prudent?" Dunderdale said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The EI amendments are being brought in as regulatory changes as opposed to legislative changes, allowing the government to change them in the future without bringing the amendments back to parliament.

Liberal critic Rodger Cuzner said another problem with the changes arises in the appeals process, which will now be handled by political appointees in Ottawa and not local experts familiar with regional employment issues.

"This seems like a poor response to maybe what is a complex problem," Cuzner told Power Play.