05/27/2012 11:38 EDT | Updated 07/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Arts workers criticize E.I. changes

A long-time theatre director in Newfoundland and Labrador says changes to the federal employment insurance system will be bad for the province's seasonal theatre and tourism industries.

“It's a little bit like taking a chainsaw to cut something where you need a pair of scissors,” said Donna Butt, of Rising Tide Theatre.

“They've just taken the whole thing, huge sweep and not looked at what works within the seasonal activity and the EI system and what doesn't.”

Butt said forcing frequent EI users to look for work outside their fields is insensitive to the needs of the province’s seasonal tourist industry,

Actor and producer Ruth Lawrence fears said the changes may drive people out of the province.

“It's going to have the effect that the conservative government seems to want to have of up-rooting seasonal workers, getting them out of small communitiesand really pushing them towards the larger centres and feeding whatever service industry needs to be fed at the moment,” she said.

Lawrence said if she didn't have E.I. when she first started, she may not have had a career at all.

Another St. John’s-based actor said the changes may push him to switch careers.

“The worry for me … this could potentially end my acting career if I am mandated to go work in the mall or a convenience store, or a gas station, I'm not going to be able to go out and audition. So what does that do for artists?,” asked Colin Furlong.

Furlong said he is not opposed to E.I. reform, but he doesn’t believe changing the definition of suitable employment is the way to do it.

Under new regulations expected to be in place by early 2013, the new definition of suitable employment would be based on six criteria:

- Personal circumstances

- Working conditions

- Hours of work

- Commuting time

- Type of work

- Hourly wage

Personal circumstances would include health conditions and family situations, and commuting time within one hour, possibly longer if such commuting times are normal in a given community.

Changes announced Thursday

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."

"This will ensure impartiality and strengthen requirements for Canadians receiving EI benefits to actively look for and accept all suitable work," Finley said at a news conference in Ottawa.

She said the government is clarifying the definitions and helping unemployed Canadians connect to available jobs, not forcing them to take jobs outside where they live or for which they are not suited.

$485 maximum in EI can be collected

The type of work and hourly wages considered suitable could change, depending on how long someone is claiming the benefit.

Approximately 500,000 Canadians are claiming EI at any given time. The benefit pays eligible Canadians a maximum of 55 per cent of their average weekly earnings. The maximum weekly amount is $485.

The government intends to classify claimants in three categories:

- Long-tenured workers who have paid into the EI program for seven of the past 10 years, and over the last five years have collected regular or fishing benefits for 35 weeks or less.

- Frequent claimants are those who have had three or more claims (regular or fishing) for a total of more than 60 weeks in the past five years.

- Occasional claimants are all other claimants, who have limited experience in being unemployed.