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An open Service Canada location, in Toronto is photographed, on Thurs., March 26, 2020.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa and public sector union leaders sought to assure Canadians Friday they have contingencies to help those who cannot use the internet to apply for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits, Old Age Security, and other benefits and government programs.

The federal government shut the doors to all of its 317 Service Canada Centres - the offices where Canadians can apply for benefits and services - Friday after employees refused en masse to work due to risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

“We will be making special considerations for people who are particularly vulnerable and have difficulties accessing those services,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday after the centres were closed.

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The government is encouraging Canadians to turn to the internet to submit applications they might otherwise have dropped off at a Service Canada Centre.

But for people who can’t use the internet, Service Canada employees will work with them over the telephone. “Our members will be able to provide that service for Canadians over the phone,” Public Service Alliance of Canada president Chris Aylward said Friday.

If this assistance isn’t sufficient, Service Canada will offer special appointments at certain offices when circumstances warrant. “In cases where an in-person visit is necessary, the individual will receive a specific appointment to come into the office where their file will be prepared in advance and they will be supported in a safe environment,” Mr. Aylward said.

Crystal Warner is national executive vice-president of the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, which represents 17,000 Service Canada employees, including 3,360 who staff the centres. She said the government and her union are working to devise a system for the in-person appointments that would prevent transmission of the virus.

“That’s part of the conversation still: What is that setup going to look like to protect the client and protect the worker?" Ms. Warner said.

Under the new measures, staff will still come to work at the centres but the front doors will be locked. People who show up will be redirected to Service Canada’s website and phone number.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on March 27, 2020.

The Canadian Press

A spokesperson for the Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP) said the organization supports the decision to close the Service Canada Centres.

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“We all have a role to play in maintaining good public health and to help flatten the curve on coronavirus, protecting older adults in the process,” said Marissa Lennox, chief policy officer at CARP.

She said many older adults prefer “in-person service,” and she urged Ottawa to ensure they “do not face any barriers in trying to access the services they need, including support for [EI] and pension applications”

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