OTTAWA – The Conservative government has cut off the flow of some key employment data to the public just as it is about to present new, stricter rules on Employment Insurance.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley is set to announce details Thursday morning that will alter the landscape for those collecting EI, with particular emphasis on repeat claimants.
Sources say the package may provide for a gradual reduction of benefits for frequent applicants — a measure that would hurt people relying on seasonal employment.
The package of reforms — which sources say has remained in flux almost up to Thursday’s release date — is meant to be a “flexible” approach to tightening up Employment Insurance that takes regional circumstances into account, but at the same time narrows the definition of what constitutes “suitable work” and a “reasonable job offer” for EI claimants to accept.
At the same time, Finley’s department has stopped sending Statistics Canada key and current information about how much federal money is flowing to each of the provinces for EI claimants, The Canadian Press has learned.
Three tables normally produced with Statistics Canada’s monthly EI summary are now “frozen,” according to the agency website.
“Data are not available to users,” a note says for the tables that normally show the total dollar amount of benefits paid to each province and the average weekly payments by province.
A spokesman for Statistics Canada said some inconsistencies in the Human Resources raw data were discovered over a year ago, and no one has found a way to resolve the issue.
An internal agency note obtained by The Canadian Press said that despite the inconsistencies, the agency was still able to produce aggregates over the past year. But as of May 2012, the agency no longer has enough data from Human Resources to continue.
Reports about the number EI recipients are still available.
Demand for information about EI is running high right now due to the government’s slow strip tease on changes to the program.
“Loss of data will make it much more difficult to analyse the impacts of changes to the EI rules as they are implemented,” said Andrew Jackson, chief economist at the Canadian Labour Congress.
He is concerned that stricter criteria for EI claimants are coming at the same time as Ottawa reduces the avenues for appeal — leaving adjudicators with little leeway to allow for local and personal circumstances.
The Harper government first said in the spring 2012 budget that it would “clarify” who can continue to receive benefits, taking aim at people with a long history of claiming EI benefits.
The government then included measures in the omnibus budget implementation bill to overhaul key conditions for EI claimants, but did not provide much information about how the new rules would work.
For weeks, firm details have been sparse, often contradictory and always controversial, prompting an outcry from some Atlantic premiers, opposition critics and organized labour.
The opposition NDP says that between the mixed messages coming from the government on EI reforms and cutting off EI costing data, transparency in policy making has disappeared.
“Transparency has not been their strong suit here,” said MP Peggy Nash. “It’s not been a good process.”
The package to be revealed Thursday is expected to outline what kind of jobs claimants must accept, how far afield they would have to travel for work, and how much of a wage cut they would have to accept.
“Improvements to EI will be common sense, reasonable and further encourage and support Canadians to find employment in their local area,” said Finley’s spokeswoman, Alyson Queen.
The package will also explain the government’s plans to send more job-availability information to unemployed people in the hope of finding them a job. The budget included $21 million over two years to set up a new bureaucracy for this work.
Statistics Canada said Wednesday that Canada had about 237,000 unfilled jobs in February. That’s about one available job for every 5.8 unemployed workers.
The federal Conservatives have frequently expressed frustration at the number of jobs going unfilled even as the pool of unemployed workers remains large, but Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, issued a release saying the Statistics Canada numbers refute the government’s contention.
“Despite such evidence the government wants to ram through parliament dramatic changes to Employment Insurance that are fundamentally wrong and unfair to working people,” said Georgetti.