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EI confusing for Atlantic Canada: report

HALIFAX - A lot of distress in Atlantic Canada over Employment Insurance changes could have been avoided had Ottawa consulted properly with the provinces before implementing the new rules, says a report ordered by the region's premiers.

The panel report, released Monday, was commissioned last year after the federal government introduced changes it said would better connect Canadians with available jobs.

But the 109-page report says the changes have created a lot of confusion, particularly a rule surrounding acceptable commuting times.

Under the changes, jobs may be considered suitable if they are within a one-hour commute from the claimant's home and the pay is at least 70 per cent of their previous salary. Commutes could be longer, depending on the claimant's commuting history.

The panel says the change has created fear among some claimants who've previously accepted jobs outside of their province.

"The concern raised was that people would be forced to return to out of province locations by Service Canada or penalized if they did not," says the report, which involved consultations with EI claimants, community groups, businesses and government representatives.

"At a time when the provinces are supporting and encouraging workers to repatriate to the Atlantic provinces this is a concern."

The federal government has said the changes to the Employment Insurance program were required as a result of unprecedented labour and skills shortages, and could save the public treasury $33 million this year.

The new rules have prompted numerous protests on the East Coast. The region's premiers have repeatedly expressed concerns the changes will hurt seasonal industries and businesses in the four Atlantic provinces.

They've also blasted Ottawa for what they say was a lack of discussion over the revised program, something the report concluded would have made a difference.

"We believe that a great deal of the fear and concern that we heard would have been mitigated had there been an effective communication strategy in place prior to the changes and throughout the first year of the changes," says the report.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney was unavailable for an interview.

A spokeswoman for Kenney said in an email that less than one per cent of disqualifications from the program were because of the new rules.

"Our changes to Employment Insurance did not change the rules around applying and qualifying for EI — they simply clarified long-standing requirements," said Alexandra Fortier.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including more collaboration and better communication between Ottawa and the premiers. It also says communication between Service Canada staff and EI claimants could be improved, noting that some staff members seemed uninformed of the new rules.

Some claimants also reported having trouble getting through to a toll-free support number, sometimes for days.

The report also calls on Ottawa to commit to providing data to the Atlantic provinces on the impact of the program changes.

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