Civil servants making door-to-door visits to Employment Insurance recipients are trained to deal with confrontation and shouldn't be concerned about their safety, says the federal Human Resources minister.
Hundreds of Service Canada "integrity officers" are making the rounds of 1,200 EI claimants across Canada before the end of March.
According to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, the employees are handing out in-person invitations to their customary job-search interviews as part of an audit being conducted while the EI program is being overhauled.
But the Public Service Alliance of Canada said the visits should be stopped in areas of the country where EI is an explosive issue — like Atlantic Canada — over concern for the workers' safety.
On Wednesday, Jeannie Baldwin, the union's Atlantic regional executive vice-president, called the situation "volatile" because many EI recipients are anxious about the program's changes and fear their benefits could be cancelled.
However, Finley said the workers have been trained to deal with such situations.
"Their safety is our primary concern, so they've been instructed," she said.
"And in cases when there has been aggressive behaviour, those visits can be stopped. I hate to see that happen, because, quite frankly, these people are coming to the door simply to invite people to a meeting."
Don Rogers, the national president of the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, said Wednesday that he wrote to the federal government recently requesting an end to the house calls project.
The department told Rogers the in-person calls had been stopped in New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula where several protests have taken place, but not elsewhere.
He also heard from regional vice presidents that the federal government is winding down the project.
When asked by CBC News whether claimants could see the door-to-door tactic as intimidation or harassment, Finley said various government programs have carried out similar evaluations for 30 to 40 years, either by phone, mail or in-person.
She said the random visits are to determine those people who are "forthright in their eligibility."
"That should not be intimidating," said Finley.
"That's quite normal for anybody who is on EI or collecting any other benefits to expect that we want to make sure that eligible people are getting it and only eligible people."
"Anyone who follows the rules has absolutely nothing to fear," says Finley.
Finley reiterated that the integrity officers do not have what are called performance quotas, but rather targets for different regions.
Government documents obtained by Montreal newspaper Le Devoir showed that civil servants are expected to find $485,000 each in fraudulent claims. They also outlined performance evaluation expectations for the investigators.
But Finley said that last year, Service Canada was able to stop about half a billion dollars of ineligible payments and that there are several hundred million dollars more still out there.
"When you set quotas, that implies that there are consequences for the people who don't … hit their quotas and this is not the case. There are no bonuses, no punishments for frontline people in Service Canada or indeed the managers who are in the union."
However, department executives are compensated on a long list of criteria if their employees meet their targets, said Finley.
Last May, Finley announced that major EI changes were being phased in.
EI claimants are now expected to accept any job for which they are qualified, within 100 km of home, as long as the pay is 70 per cent of their previous salary. They also have to prove they are actively seeking work.
"If the jobs aren't out there — and in many seasonal areas they aren't — then EI will continue to be there for them as it always has been," she said.
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Reactions To EI Changes
A selection of quotes on the newly announced changes to the employment insurance program.<br><br> <em><strong>With files from CP and CBC.</strong></em><br><br> (CP/Alamy)
"New EI changes are like 'E-Harmony' for job seekers and employers: matching Cdns looking for work with available jobs, data, support." - Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, on Twitter. (CP)
What we heard today is the minister scapegoating unemployed Canadians . . . that they are not trying hard enough to find work." - NDP Finance Critic Peggy Nash. (CP)
"While we're glad to see that the Conservatives have backed away from earlier draconian proposals floated by their most senior ministers, including the minister of Finance, we're concerned that the announced changes will force many Canadians to take low-skilled, low-paying jobs, jeopardize the economic security of communities that are reliant on seasonal industries, and that the appeals process will now be handled by a handful of political appointees based in Ottawa instead of by regional experts that are familiar with local circumstances." - Rodger Cuzner, Liberal Human Resources critic. (CP)
"The main beneficiaries of the current employment insurance rules are not the workers that Conservative rhetoric seeks to demonize, suggesting that something is wrong with 'repeat users', but rather the employers in forestry, fisheries and tourism industries." - Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. (CP)
"We certainly need more information than we have. People having to search for work and having to go within an hour's radius of where they live and so on, on the face of it, that doesn't sound all that onerous or difficult. But that depends on what you work at. In a province where we don't have public transportation, for example, if you're working for a minimum wage job and you have to travel 40 miles away, which is within the hour radius, to work at another $10-an-hour job, is that sensible? Is that prudent?" - Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale, scrumming with reporters at the provincial legislature in St. John's. (CP)
"I'm disappointed that the federal government failed to consult with the provinces and territories on an issue that will impact workers and their families across the country... Under the new rules, some EI recipients that are eligible now will become less eligible in the future. The changes will also make it difficult for some employers to stay in business, including operators in the farming industry. It is already a challenge to keep rural communities strong. Economic changes are forcing people to leave their homes and communities to find work, and in many cases, once they leave, they're gone for good." - Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, in a statement provided to CBC News. (CP)
"When it comes to the EI system in Canada, a one-size-fits-all does not work... On P.E.I., we are very fortunate that our three largest industries are fisheries, agriculture and tourism: all three industries that are seasonal in nature. We are different than downtown Toronto and we are different than downtown Calgary. We know the federal government is looking at making changes that would be a hindrance to our industries that rely on workers coming back year after year that have expertise in these areas, that they need to come back and help to get their products to market." - Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz, speaking in the legislative assembly in Charlottetown. (CP)
Gregory Thomas, Canadian Taxpayers Federation
"The new EI rules strike a blow for hard-working Canadian taxpayers, against habitual pogey collectors who have been enjoying part-time work with other people's money for far too long... If you've been collecting pogey more than one year in the past five, maybe it's time to get some training, find a different line of work, or move to where the jobs are... Let's remember, these so-called benefits are nothing more than other people's EI tax money - over $20 billion dollars - forcibly taken from them... Every Canadian should be entitled to keep the money they work for, not have government tax it away and give it out in an attempt to buy votes." - Gregory Thomas, Canadian Taxpayers Federation, from a press release. (Handout)
Ken Georgetti, Canadian Labour Congress
"What she should do as a responsible cabinet minister is take these changes out of that budget bill and start to talk to the people who know the system better than she... Instead she comes up with more fatuous suggestions about situations that really don't exist out there... This is ridiculous economic policy. It's short-term thinking and it's political football with the people that are the most vulnerable in our society. People who are unemployed don't want to be unemployed. This government would have you believe that they're sitting there and surfing off the shores of Nova Scotia or skiing in the mountains of British Columbia... it's not true." - Ken Georgetti, Canadian Labour Congress, speaking on CBC News Network. (Handout)
Catherine Swift, Canadian Federation of Independent Business
"We believe the changes to defining suitable employment, based on how frequently EI is claimed, will help to remove disincentives to work and hopefully make it easier for small firms to find the people they need... Under the current system, 22 per cent of small business owners said they had difficulty hiring as potential workers would rather stay on EI benefits and another 16 per cent said they had been asked by an employee to lay them off to allow them to collect benefits... Employers agree that EI should be there for those who lose a job through no fault of their own, but do not accept that the system should be used as some form of paid vacation or ongoing lifestyle for those who choose not to work." - Catherine Swift, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, quoted in a news release. (Handout