OTTAWA - A new study from the Human Resources Department suggests Ottawa is looking at ways to get people receiving employment insurance to move to other regions with more jobs.
Such measures would go beyond the Harper government's new policy that appears to require that some EI recipients take unfilled jobs but only in their own region.
A focus group study, completed in January, asked 75 people on EI in Quebec and Atlantic Canada what would it take to get them to move to regions where there are more jobs available.
The research, ordered last June shortly after the Conservatives were elected with a majority, required the survey company to determine "what type of migration incentives could encourage EI clients to accept a job that requires a residential move?"
Sage Research Corp. reported that the EI clients in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., Corner Brook, Nfld., Miramichi, N.B., and Yarmouth, N.S., all reacted positively to some proposed financial incentives, such as reimbursement for moving expenses or for travel costs to a job interview.
One "concept is to reimburse moving expenses for unemployed people who have moved and found a permanent job in another region," says the final report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
"There was a degree of positive reaction to this concept as an incentive from a number of participants."
The study did not explore whether the prospect of being cut off from EI benefits might also encourage a move to other regions, but focused instead on cost reimbursement.
The issue of EI changes has dominated debate in Parliament this week, with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty suggesting sweeping reforms that could include requiring EI recipients to take low-level jobs outside their skills and work experience.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has tried to douse the controversy by saying the reforms would not require EI recipients to take jobs outside their regions or beyond their "skill sets."
However the proposed amendments, buried in the government's omnibus budget bill, contain no details or definitions, simply empowering the minister to change regulations without parliamentary scrutiny.
A spokeswoman for Finley tried to distance the minister from the newly released study.
"This research was commissioned by the department without the knowledge of the minister," Alyson Queen said in an email.
"We have been quite clear that the intent of the improvements we are making to the Employment Insurance program are to connect Canadians with local jobs opportunities, in their area."
Queen added: "We were not even aware of this report or the research being conducted. It was not commissioned by us and was not a part of our policy considerations."
Finley later issued a statement from Guadalajara, Mexico, where she was travelling:
"Economic Action Plan 2012 committed to increasing efforts that will better connect Canadians with opportunities in their local labour market.
"Our government has been very clear that changes will connect Canadians with available jobs in their own area.
"The study in question did not inform the policy direction we are taking to improve employment insurance."
But Saskatchewan's premier suggested measures to promote mobility are indeed on the federal EI agenda.
"There are ... some built-in disincentives for people in certain parts of the country to go where there is a labour shortage in other parts of the country," Brad Wall said at the legislature in Regina on Thursday.
"So we're hearing in principle anyway that they're looking at those changes and that they may be announcing something soon."
Wall said he pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper for EI changes in the winter, to help alleviate worker shortages in Saskatchewan. The premier led a delegation to Ireland earlier this year to find workers for about 275 unfilled jobs in the province.
A researcher with the Mowat Centre, a Toronto-based think tank, said the study's examination of so-called "mobility grants" is indeed out of step with the government's recent policy statements on EI changes.
But Jon Medow also noted the Harper government's new labour policies are already inconsistent, allowing some employers with unfilled jobs to pay temporary foreign workers wages up to 15 per cent below prevailing rates, further reducing the attractiveness of the often low-level work for Canadians on EI.
"It seems pretty incoherent," he said in an interview.
The Sage report also helps undermine a long-held criticism of the EI system, that is, that more generous benefits in high-unemployment regions reduces labour mobility to regions with work available.
The focus-group study found that most EI recipients did not know their region had richer EI benefits than other parts of Canada, and therefore the more generous benefits had little impact on decisions to stay put.
"When the question of whether EI rules or 'generosity' affect thinking about moving, the usual reaction from participants was a blank stare. ...
"Awareness that EI generosity varies regionally was quite limited. ... This low awareness indicates most participants have not consciously connected relative EI generosity to their thinking about moving."
Medow said the study's finding supports his think-tank's view that EI benefits should be uniform across Canada.