Service Canada Had 17 People Answering the Phones; Now There Are Only 4

Update:

 Stuart McCabe with son Dennis and wife Jessica, right, at their Oshawa home. McCabe applied for his parental leave benefits through his employment insurance and had to wait 46 days to receive the funds. Due to the delay, he failed to make his mortgage, auto insurance, and home insurance payments.Stuart McCabe with son Dennis and wife Jessica, right, at their Oshawa home. McCabe applied for his parental leave benefits through his employment insurance and had to wait 46 days to receive the funds. Due to the delay, he failed to make his mortgage, auto insurance, and home insurance payments.  Mathew Sherwood/For The Toronto Star.

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Stuart McCabe waited 46 days for his employment insurance money to arrive. It was supposed to take 28 days. During that time the Oshawa father, who has been on paternal leave since Nov. 1, missed his mortgage, car insurance and hydro payments.

With Christmas looming, McCabe had no money and a $400 slap in the face in the form of nonsufficient fund penalties for those missed payments. So he called Service Canada to find out where his money was — the automated message told him to call back later. So he did. Twenty times. More than 50 per cent of Service Canada callers in late September also heard that same message.

It’s a familiar scene across the country as massive layoffs at Service Canada have led to delays in employment insurance processing, which leaves people like McCabe frustrated and angry — especially when it is so difficult to get through to a real person at Service Canada.

This comes as 19,000 Canadians lost their jobs in November, increasing the unemployment rate to 7.4 per cent, which also adds demand for employment insurance.

Call centre data obtained by Rodger Cuzner, Liberal MP for Cape Breton-Canso, through an order paper shows the difficulty getting through to an agent. As of September, only 32 per cent of calls were answered within three minutes. That is down from 42 per cent last year and 53 per cent the year before that.

“I was furious and the agent on the phone told me that there were now four people answering calls when there used to be 17,” McCabe said. “So it’s not their fault.”

So McCabe called Diane Finley, the minister of Human Resources and Skills Development who is responsible for employment insurance.

“I was adamant that I wanted to speak with Diane Finley personally. I wanted her to write me a cheque for all the banking fees I’ve incurred,” McCabe said. “I’ve got a wife and three kids and I thought we were going to be sitting by the fire in the basement for heat.”

Many Canadians live paycheque to paycheque. A poll commissioned by the Canadian Payroll Association a few months ago found that 57 per cent of respondents couldn’t deal with a one-week delay in their pay.

In August, Finley announced cuts to Service Canada which included the elimination of 98 employment insurance processing centres. There will be 1,200 fewer Service Canada workers according to John Gordon, president of Public Service Alliance of Canada.

The ministry confirmed the job losses, but wouldn’t reveal how many. Finley maintains that the delays in processing employment insurance claims are seasonal and not related to the job cuts. It’s all part of the government’s strategy to balance the budget with the goal of saving $495 million within Service Canada by 2014.

“With continuous improvements to the way that we do business, such as increased automation, improved online services, and a nationally-managed workload distribution, Service Canada will be able to manage service demands in a more cost-effective and efficient way,” said Alison Queen, Finley’s press secretary.

After McCabe complained to Finley’s office, his payment was processed the next day. He still wants to be reimbursed for his banking fees, but that won’t happen, said NDP human resources critic Jean Crowder.

“Good luck. There isn’t a mechanism for the government to pay you for costs that are incurred because of their delays in claims processing,” Crowder said. “What are you going to do, take them to small claims court?”

Service Canada employees on the other end of the line are also frustrated. And those are the ones who still have jobs. The employment insurance call centre in Glace Bay, N.S., is closing and layoffs at the employment insurance processing facility in Sydney, N.S., will leave little more than a skeleton staff. Furious workers took to the streets in both cities last weekend to protest the cuts.

Finley, in a letter to the editor of The Guardian, a P.E.I. newspaper, said there aren’t any delays in employment insurance processing.

“When it comes to EI, our annual service standard is to process 80 per cent of applications within 28 days,” she wrote. “We are currently averaging 23 days for speed of the first payment. We are actually exceeding our target for the majority of Canadians.”

However, that statistic is misleading, as it accounts for first payments and non-payment notification, which can occur for a variety of reasons, including clerical errors.

That’s what happened with McCabe’s claim. He had a problem with “box 17, ” which deals with vacation pay. His employer input $0. That was wrong. Box 17 should have remained blank. But it took McCabe weeks to find that out because of the clogged telephone service.

Finley says the employment insurance system is being modernized with the goal of expanding automated processing claims to 70 per cent from 44 per cent over three years. McCabe’s claim should have been automated, but a clerical error led to dozens of phone calls and, finally, human intervention.

The minister enraged employment insurance workers in that same letter when she blamed them for the delays.

“Most interesting though is that in the month that we announced we will be overhauling and improving EI processing to better serve Canadians — before any changes were introduced — productivity and performance went from being on par with last year’s performance at this time, to the worst in five years,” Finley wrote.

The Canada Employment and Immigration Union, which represents thousands of Service Canada workers, is working on filing a grievance against Finley.

“Finley’s comments have been harmful,” said Don Rogers, president of the union. “Service is worse because there aren’t enough resources. Our workers aren’t lazy, they’re overworked and they’re aren’t enough of them.”

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