12/14/2012 07:58 EST | Updated 02/13/2013 05:12 EST

Alward government under fire over EI changes

The New Brunswick Liberals are calling on the Alward government to "stand up" to the federal government over changes to the Employment Insurance program.

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant contends the tough new rules, slated to take effect on Jan. 6, will have a "devastating impact" on the provincial economy.

“The Alward government’s argument that this is a federal issue is very unfortunate," Gallant said in a statement. "It is the premier’s role to protect the people, the workers, and the economy of New Brunswick."

“This is not just an issue that affects northern New Brunswick, rural New Brunswick or certain industries,” Gallant stressed.

The new rules, which require repeat claimants to accept lower-paying jobs farther from where they live, could result in the loss of 800 jobs, $100 million in revenue, $125 million in income tax and upwards of $50 million in GDP, he said.

An EI reform rally will be held in Shediac on Monday at 7 p.m. at the multifunctional centre.

Premier out of the loop

Although government officials had hinted earlier this week the new rules would be softened, thanks to provincial lobbying, a spokeswoman for the Harper government told CBC News on Thursday the changes stand.

Opposition Leader Victor Boudreau contends Ottawa's decision and the mixed messages on whether the EI rules would change illustrates Alward's lack of clout.

"The federal Conservative government doesn't even respect our premier enough to keep him in the loop on this Mr. Speaker," he said in the legislature on Friday.

Alward was not present to respond to the criticisms. But Deputy Premier Paul Robichaud stressed the EI law is federal and not something New Brunswick can change.

Still, Robichaud says he hopes Ottawa can be persuaded to change the rules, which were announced in May.

Earlier this week, Labour Minister Danny Soucy had suggested quiet lobbying by the provincial government would result in the rules being softened.

"We believe the work we've been doing with them is cause for that announcement," Soucy had said.

MPs weigh in

Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe Conservative MP Robert Goguen made similar comments last week about expecting changes.

Liberal MP for Beauséjour Dominic LeBlanc says he was surprised when Human Resources Minister Diane Finley merely clarified the rules, rather than changed them, during her announcement in P.E.I.

"The provincial economy in New Brunswick is in the ditch and to have Madame Finley go to P.E.I. and say, 'No, no, we're just clarifying,' those are all code words," LeBlanc said.

"And what's too bad is that a guy like Robert Goguen is just shoved out on the clothesline to dry. That's unfair because he frankly deserves better."

Goguen is out of the country and unavailable for comment. But his Conservative colleague MP Mike Allen, who represents Tobique-Mactaquac, defended the unchanged EI rules.

He says the government will use common sense when it comes to following them.

"So the more that we can get those folks off EI and even taking part-time day work is important. It lowers the EI premium and it helps them," said Allen.

"Further, no one is going to be asked to take, or forced to take any job where they're going to be worse off economically," he said.

Seasonal workers disappointed

Under the new rules, frequent users of EI must take any job, sooner than they're currently required to. The job could be up to an hour away from home and could pay 30 per cent less than their normal wages.

Normand Vautour, who used to work in construction and has been on EI before, says the changes are a blow to the working class.

"It's really a sick situation the government is putting all these people into. I feel really bad about it," he said.

Many of the people in their 50s and 60s have a limited education and worry about how they will put food on their tables, said Vautour.

"There's some people who can't read and some people can't write. You think it's easy for them to go to Moncton and go to find a job in the off season when the fisheries are not working? It's not easy.

"I think it's ridiculous really," he said.

Gaetane Paulin, who works part of the year at a fish plant in Caraquet, says the changes make no sense.

"We're the ones that pay into EI, not the government," he said in French. "It's there to protect us."

Protests have been going on for months in the Acadian Peninsula, where many people work seasonal jobs in the seafood industry.

People in Cap-Pelé, such as Ulysse Boudreau, are in a similar situation.

"It's foolish what they want to do," said Boudreau, who relies on EI when he isn't fishing and working odd jobs.

"We got a mortgage to pay, we've got gas, we've got a car. Let's say you've got a kid, you've got clothes to buy. You've got to have that cheque for living," he said.