05/23/2012 10:58 EDT | Updated 07/23/2012 05:12 EDT

EI changes won't mean long commutes, Tory minister says

Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency Minister Bernard Valcourt is contradicting the claims made by another federal New Brunswick cabinet minister over the upcoming Employment Insurance reforms.

Valcourt, who is also the Conservative MP for Madawaska-Restigouche, said people will not have to travel an hour to take a job in order to qualify for Employment Insurance benefits in the future.

Valcourt said people, especially in rural areas, already "travel a certain reasonable distance” to work.

Unlike federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, however, Valcourt would not put a specific timeframe on what would be considered reasonable when the federal government releases its new EI reforms.

“I guess it is particular to each region. I mean, you know, I don't think that it would be proper or it would be reasonable to expect someone from Fredericton or Saint John to commute to Moncton for a job daily,” Valcourt said.

“You know it doesn't make sense. So we're talking communities and surrounding communities. What is reasonable? The details are not out yet.”

The federal government has not completely laid out its plans for reforming the Employment Insurance system.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley is expected to announce the specific changes to EI Thursday.

The federal government's budget implementation bill refers to changes that are going to be made in the criteria for defining what is suitable work for EI recipients and for defining what are reasonable efforts to find work.

EI recipients must show on an ongoing basis that they are looking for work in order to qualify for the benefit.

But Ashfield used the specific timeframe in connection with the EI reforms during an interview on Tuesday.

“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,” he said.

“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.

Valcourt said he knows many people in the northwestern city of Edmundston, who commute about 30 minutes to St. Leonard for work.

But he said he wouldn’t expect people to travel to Woodstock, which is about two hours south of Edmundston.

“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 in the province to get a job,” he said.

“There are hundreds of small- and medium-sized business be it in Fredericton or Moncton or Saint John as we speak that are looking for employees. i think what is aimed and the objective here is to connect those people that want to work with available jobs in their communities and the surrounding communities.”

Comments raise concerns

In Stanley, N.B., many people drive 45 minutes to work in Fredericton. But Cody MacKay, who is going graduate soon as a mechanic, said no one should be denied EI if they refuse to commute an hour to work.

"I think it's kind of foolish. I mean, if you can't find a job close to home, why travel over an hour just to work," he said.

Others in Stanley don't mind the commute at all.

"I didn't find it too far," said Betty Donnally, who commuted for 43 years. "But I found a job that was handier, so I took it, of course. When I have a choice, I take a closer one."

In Fredericton, one seasonal worker said it was unreasonable to expect people to commute an hour to work. Scott Searle said the math just doesn't add up.

"The job would have to be worth the travel, for starters. The minimum wage in N.B. is $10.50 an hour. So, if I took a $10.50 an hour job, travelled every day for an hour, say five days a week.... for fuel, we'll say average of $40 a week," he said.

Searle said if the government wants him to travel, it will have to provide the vehicle.