Ottawa has vigorously investigated whether Employment Insurance policies could drive Canadians to relocate even though Conservative ministers say EI changes aren't designed to force the jobless to pack their bags.
Three recent government studies strike at the fundamental tension behind the Tories' call for Canada's unemployed to help fill the nation's labour shortages and new restrictions on claiming EI benefits.
Both supporters and critics of the government's policies insist Ottawa is trying to urge people leave regions of high unemployment. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has praised the EI changes as an incentive for Canadians to get off “pogey” and “move to where the jobs are.” Opposition critics like Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner accuse Ottawa of trying to “depopulate rural Canada.”
Canada's four Atlantic premiers weighed in Wednesday with a united front, urging Ottawa to provide more detail on how EI changes will affect seasonal workers and industries.
The evidence gathered by public servants suggests some arguments on both sides of the debate are on shaky factual ground.
According to one of the internal federal studies that looked at data from 2004 to 2009, the percentage of Canadians who moved after a job loss was virtually identical among EI recipients and non-EI recipients at 18 per cent.
A deeper examination of those who did move found that 73.5 per cent of those who received EI moved more than 100 kilometres to find work, while only 68.9 per cent of people not receiving benefits moved that far. The numbers suggest receiving EI makes a long move slightly more likely, undercutting the argument that the support keeps people in weak job markets.
The reports states that while receiving EI can reduce the pressure to move by providing a safety net, it can also encourage someone to relocate because it helps finance related costs. Overall, researchers found that receiving EI makes a move of at least 100 kilometres slightly more likely.
The federal government triggered a heated national debate last month by unveiling the most extensive changes to EI in over a decade.
The reforms would split EI recipients into three categories with separate criteria based on how often they have used EI over the previous five years. Frequent users would have less time to be choosy in their job hunt before being expected to take any available job that offers at least 70 per cent of their previous pay.
The new rules will also stipulate that EI recipients should accept appropriate jobs that are within a one-hour commute – or possibly longer in places where long commutes are common, such as the Greater Toronto Area.
Throughout the debate, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has insisted that the changes are about linking unemployed Canadians with jobs in their area and are not aimed at encouraging people to move. Her spokesperson says the three reports are part of regular public-service research and are not connected to the recently announced reforms.
For the January, 2012, study that became public last month, her department conducted focus groups of frequent EI users on the topic of “geographic mobility.”
For that report – produced for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, which manages EI – the Sage Research Corporation conducted focus groups in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., Corner Brook, N.L., Miramachi, N.B., and Yarmouth, N.S.
That report said researchers encountered a “permanent seasonal worker” mindset in which the issue of whether EI is a disincentive to moving is not top of mind.
“When the question of whether EI rules or ‘generosity' affect thinking about moving, the usual reaction from participants was a blank stare, as most did not consciously relate the two,” states the report.
The Globe has since obtained two other HRSDC reports in draft form from 2010 and 2011 that study the link between mobility and EI.
One produced by HRSDC in September, 2010, studied the impact of EI regional boundary changes in New Brunswick over the years 1997 to 2006. The study found that more generous EI terms for the province's Eastern region – where unemployment is high – had little impact on emigration rates.
A draft HRSDC study from September, 2011, called “Commuting and Mobility Patterns of Employment Insurance Recipients and Non-Recipients,” studied census data and other reports to determine whether a link exists between EI generosity and mobility.
“Findings did not suggest that EI discourages workers from being mobile,” researchers concluded. “On the contrary, EI receipt was positively correlated with [a] long-distance move, long-distance commuting and other flexible commuting behaviours.”