05/24/2012 09:00 EDT | Updated 07/24/2012 05:12 EDT

New EI rules worry seasonal workers in N.S.

Some of the more than 40,000 Nova Scotians receiving employment insurance say new rules could be tough on those who are already having trouble finding work.

"Most people, if they could get steadier work, would work more steady. They wouldn't go on unemployment," said Herb Nash, who has been fishing out of Glace Bay harbour for nearly 50 years.

Nash said most fishermen rely on EI during the winter because there's nothing else available.

"If there's half decent jobs here, the people around here are not lazy," he said Thursday.

"The jobs just aren't in this area."

Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley revealed details Thursday about plans to reform EI that would change the definitions of "suitable work" and "a reasonable job search."

Under new regulations expected to be in place by early 2013, the new definition of suitable employment would be based on criteria including personal circumstances, hours of work and commuting time.

Frequent claimants — those who have had three or more claims for a total of more than 60 weeks in the past five years — would be expected to accept any work they are qualified to do and to accept wages starting at 70 per cent of their previous hourly wage.

Seasonal workers will fall into the frequent-user category and the changes could mean they would be expected to take retail, food service or other jobs that are vacant in their communities. If they decline job offers, they could be cut off from EI.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said he's troubled by the changes because it addresses a problem that doesn't exist.

"They seem to be saying that there's some kind of widespread abuse that needs to be fixed," he told CBC News on Thursday.

"The people who they most seem to be targeting are actually people who are in seasonal jobs. That's not an abuse, that is part of the rural culture of Canada."

Federal government accused of playing politics

Tammy Marshe, who runs the New Waterford & Area Employment Resource Centre, said in her region, people with university degrees are competing with those who haven't finished high school for some slim pickings.

"A lot of entry level jobs, fast food, retail, paying minimum wage. We're not seeing much more than that right now," she told CBC News.

"People will struggle to find work even though they're looking for work."

Joseph Hayden, a deck hand, had to travel from Shelburne to Cape Breton just to get seasonal work.

"I'd be happy if they found me a good job down home that pays me close to what I get up here," he said.

Under the new rules, EI claimants will be assessed based on their job search activities, the intensity and frequency of their efforts, the type of work they are looking for and on the evidence they have to prove their efforts.

Recipients will be required to apply for positions, attend interviews, go to job fairs and workshops, search for vacancies and to do these activities every day that they are receiving benefits. They have to keep a record of their activities and if EI recipients don't comply with these rules, they could be cut off from the program.

Lars Osberg, an economics professor at Dalhousie University, said the Conservative government is playing politics with seasonal workers in Atlantic Canada.

"Getting tough on the unemployed always plays well to a certain constituency. The fact of the matter is, a good deal less than half of the unemployed in Canada now get EI benefits," he said Thursday.

"It's a small fraction that get seasonal benefits and there isn't any evidence that any of those people are turning down a lot of jobs."