Attempts by the federal Conservatives to provide benefits and information more quickly to the unemployed and the elderly have done little to reduce the frustrations with Service Canada, government documents suggest.
Seniors who call the agency to ask about their pension and Old Age Security benefits are still reaching jammed phone lines. And many jobless Canadians are waiting months for the agency to mail out their first cheques.
After a barrage of criticism last year over the inability of Service Canada to render assistance to Canadians in a timely fashion, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley agreed to hire temporary employees and reassign hundreds of existing staff.
But documents provided this month to Chris Charlton, the Human Resources critic for the NDP, suggest there was little subsequent improvement in the sluggish pace at Service Canada, where hundreds of workers have been laid off and thousands of others have been told their jobs are on the line.
“Obviously, we haven’t recovered from the last round of cuts and now there’s more,” Ms. Charlton told The Globe and Mail this week. “We were told that frontline services wouldn’t be affected, but obviously people aren’t answering the phones.”
The government says 80 per cent of calls to Service Canada should be answered within three minutes. But, according to the documents, calls about OAS and CPP that met that standard fell to 40.43 per cent in the period between April and July, 2012, from 53.92 per cent in fiscal 2011-12 .
“When staff are laid off and offices are shut down, people are now being referred to the phones, except the phone isn’t being picked up,” Ms. Charlton said.
At the EI call centres, the response times improved slightly between this year and last – to 35 per cent of calls being answered within three minutes from 29 per cent meeting the target.
But the processing times for EI applications are worse than last year. In June, for instance, 24 per cent of jobless Canadians waited more than the department’s prescribed maximum of 28 days to get their claims through the system. That compares to 17 per cent in June of last year.
Jason Erb, a 34-year-old computer programmer in Waterloo, Ont., who was laid off in April after six years with the same company, was one of those people. He has since found another job, but it took 47 days to get his first EI cheque. “It was very frustrating at times, not knowing whether we would have to borrow money just to make our rent payment, and whether we would have enough money for my wife to further her education by the application deadline.”
Human Resources officials said in an e-mail that processing times for August and September of 2012, which were not included in the documents given to Ms. Charlton, were better than the year before.
As for the call centres, the officials said long times spent waiting on the phone can be attributed to the growing number of Canadians who are retiring every year and increasingly complex inquiries .
“We continue to move forward with our modernization agenda,” they said, “which aims to introduce new technologies and service delivery strategies as part of our ongoing effort to improve client service, support staff and increase resolution on first contact.”
But Service Canada staff suspect politics is also at play. They point to the Ottawa Service Canada call centre that was moved in 2012 from the riding held by Liberal MP Mauril Belanger to Cornwall, Ont., in Conservative MP Guy Lauzon’s riding. Or the EI processing centre that was moved from Rimouski, Que., where there was a Bloc Québécois MP followed by a New Democrat, to Thetford Mines in the riding of Industry Minister Christian Paradis.
The employees say that means experienced workers are being forced to move. And, because many can’t or won’t, the centres are understaffed and are undertrained.
Service Canada’s service: By the numbers
In January, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley authorized hiring 165 temporary employees to process EI claims and the reassignment of 214 Service Canada workers to the processing section.
The percentage of calls to Service Canada that Ottawa says should be answered within three minutes. Calls about OAS and CPP fell to 40.43 per cent in April-July, 2012, from 53.92 in fiscal 2011-12.
In June, 24 per cent of unemployed Canadians waited more than the department’s prescribed maximum of 28 days to get their claims through the system. That compares with 17 per cent in June of 2011.