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Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada outside Place du Portage in Gatineau, Que..Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is disputing union assertions that the strike involving federal public servants is causing a massive backlog in new and revised employment-insurance claims, as the nationwide job action approaches two weeks.

Almost 1,000 employment-insurance processing officers – 25 per cent of the total EI processing staff for the federal government – have been on strike, severely affecting the speed at which a hefty backlog of EI claims are being cleared, says Crystal Warner, vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union.

The CEIU is an arm of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which is in the midst of fraught negotiations with the government over a new collective agreement for 155,000 federal public employees. More than 100,000 of these workers have been off the job. Approximately 47,000, including 75 per cent of EI processing officers, have been deemed essential and continue to work as usual throughout the strike action.

“We are facing almost a million files in the backlog, which have been piling up during the strike that are barely being worked on right now. These include files where people request recalculations of their EI payments or to stop their EI payments because they’ve found a job,” Ms. Warner told The Globe and Mail. “There could be overpayment going on because of this.”

But the government’s position on the situation is markedly different. In an e-mail to The Globe, a spokesperson from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) – the ministry in charge of EI claims – said the strike “has not posed processing delays or wait times in call centres.”

The government prioritizes “initial or renewed claims” and the standard time for processing an EI application is roughly 28 days – that standard is met 80 per cent of the time, Ottawa says.

ESDC did acknowledge, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic had caused the inventory of revised claims to increase significantly but did not disclose exactly how many revised claims were currently in the backlog.

Pending initial and renewed claims are “constantly being reduced on a daily basis,” according to ESDC.

Over the weekend, the Treasury Board tabled what it termed a “new and final offer,” which included a revised wage package that was higher than the government’s previous offer of 9 per cent over three years. The union had been asking for 13.5 per cent but has since reduced its demand to an undisclosed amount.

PSAC says it’s organizing busloads of workers from Montreal for a rally in Ottawa on Monday if a deal with the government isn’t reached, the Ottawa Citizen reported.

Prior to the start of the strike, government agencies and departments had warned the public to expect some processing delays for a variety of public services including EI claims, immigration and passport applications.

As of April 8, there were roughly 862,000 revised EI claims that were part of a huge backlog, which had started building up rapidly over the pandemic, according to data from the CEIU. Revised claims are categorized as claims for people who currently are or were on EI in the past, but had contacted the government to make changes to their claims usually because they obtained jobs, moved homes, or had any significant amendments to their personal situation.

In addition, according to both the union and the government, there are roughly 100,000 new EI claims and renewal requests in the system that are waiting to be processed. Many of those claims came in during the strike.

“The longer this goes on, the less sustainable this becomes. It will be very hard for us to dig ourselves out of this,” Ms. Warner said.

There are approximately 45,000 to 60,000 new EI claims on average per week, and Service Canada is able to process roughly 45,000 of those in a week, only if many staff work overtime hours, Ms. Warner said. During the strike, she estimates that essential workers on the job are likely only processing 35,000 claims in a week because of staff limitations and the fact that most of them are not filing overtime hours as a way of supporting their striking colleagues.

The union’s position on the strike is that the federal government needs to come back with a better deal that includes remote work flexibility.

Ms. Warner believes that part of the reason why the EI backlog built up to such a large number was because of the inability of ESDC to adequately find new employees in central hubs.

“The department has been short-staffed for years, with most employees regularly working overtime. These are not high-paying jobs. We are struggling to access a work force that can’t afford to live in expensive cities like Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto,” she said. “We need to hire people in smaller communities, and remote work would allow the government that flexibility.”

An open letter penned last week from a number of private-sector unions, including Unifor, legal-aid clinics and labour-advocacy organizations, expressed concern at the impact of the strike on unemployed workers who were waiting on EI benefits.

“Many are vulnerable and racialized,” the letter said. “We know first-hand how important it is that their EI applications and appeals are processed in a timely fashion.” The letter called on the government to improve staffing levels at Service Canada and increase their wages in tandem with inflation.

Wages and remote work are central to the complex and charged negotiations between the federal government and PSAC, which have been dragging on for almost two years.

On Sunday, PSAC said it has made some progress on wage demands and job security during weekend negotiations with Ottawa. The union said its bargaining teams negotiated late into Saturday evening and continued on Sunday morning, the 12th day of the strike. On Sunday, a spokesperson for Treasury Board president Mona Fortier confirmed negotiations are continuing.

The union is also seeking language in the collective agreement that gives its members the right to telework arrangements. If management says no, the union wants it to provide an explanation in writing as to why, so that the union can potentially challenge the decision.

The government said in a statement Saturday that its new offer package “presented solutions” to issues on telework.

With a report from The Canadian Press.

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