The secretive Office for Client Satisfaction where jobless Canadians can launch complaints about the handling of their employment insurance claims is not so secret any more.
New documents released this week by the Conservative government show that the office received 9,488 "comments" between April 1 and Dec. 7 of last year.
That is a considerable increase from the period between 2007 and 2010 when the office averaged a little more than 3,000 comments a year. The number jumped to about 6,000 in fiscal year 2010-11 – an increase that Service Canada attributes to a higher volume of EI claims.
But, in the current fiscal year that ends on March 31, the office is on track to hear from more than 12,000 Canadians.
The volume of comments ballooned in November when The Globe and Mail published a story quoting Service Canada call-centre agents who said they have been warned by their bosses not to mention the office's existence to jobless clients who are frustrated with the time it is taking to process their EI claims.
"Since November 2011, the extremely high volumes of client feedback have led to delays in processing some of the more complex files," say the documents, which were provided in response to questions from Jean Crowder, the NDP human resources critic.
Ms. Crowder said she believes the increase in calls to the Office for Client Satisfaction (OCS) can be attributed to the fact that people are becoming aware of it. "And cuts to services are forcing people into looking for alternatives," she said.
In response to questions about the recent spike, Service Canada said additional resources have been added to the OCS, and the department's website "has been updated to encourage clients to direct their request to the appropriate program."
Service Canada staff say they have been unable to keep up with the workload after hundreds of workers were cut last year.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley recently authorized the temporary rehiring of more than 100 employees who had been laid off from the EI processing centres, as well as the reassignment of workers from other divisions within Service Canada, to deal with a rising mountain of claims.
In October, more than 360,000 people were waiting for their EI benefits to be processed, a backlog that has since grown, and some unemployed people are waiting months for their first cheque.
Frustrated claimants have jammed the phone lines at Service Canada call centres. But many of the agents who deal with those callers say they have been told not to tell them about the Office for Client Satisfaction.
Don Rogers, the national president of the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, which represents call-centre agents and claims processors, said Service Canada workers in some parts of the country are allowed to give out the number for the OCS while workers in other regions are strongly dissuaded from doing so.
"But we have been encouraging folks, if they are not happy with the wait times, that the best thing to do is to register your unhappiness with the Office for Client Satisfaction," he said. "That's why it's there."
The documents provided to Ms. Crowder also show high levels of absenteeism among Service Canada staff, especially at the processing centres. While the average Canadian worker takes between seven and eight sick days a year, EI processing agents take an average of nearly 12.
Mr. Rogers said his members are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. "You can imagine when it takes a member of the public days to get through [on the telephone]with a query that they may be unhappy when they finally get through and speak with someone," he said.
Ms. Crowder said she is hearing anecdotally from Service Canada employees about the difficult environment in which they work. "They are hearing people threatening suicide," she said, "they are hearing threats of violence and all that kind of thing."