More than a third of jobless Canadians who believe they were unjustly denied Employment Insurance are waiting too long, even by the government's own standards, for their appeals to be heard, newly released documents show.
And critics say the delays are about to get worse because the government intends to replace the 1,000 jobs of part-time referees who decide EI appeals with 39 full-time members of a new Social Security Tribunal.
Documents released by the government to Chris Charlton, the human resources critic for the New Democrats, show the amount of time it takes for an EI appeal to be heard has not been meeting the government's own standard of 30 days for at least 11 years.
But there was a significant and sustained decline in the already poor performance that began in 2003 and continued through to 2012.
In the fiscal year 2011-12, there were 46,834 appeals made to the EI Board of Referees. Just 13,858 – or 29 per cent – were heard within 30 days. That compares with 2002-03 when 42 per cent of appeals were heard within 30 days.
Officials with the Human Resources Department, which delivers employment insurance through Service Canada, point out that many of the appeals are resolved through a review process before they ever get to a hearing. They say that when those cases are taken out of the total, 63 per cent of the appeals were heard within the 30-day standard in 2011-12.
Ms. Charlton says that is "technically correct," but it is not what the government has promised Canadians who pay EI premiums. "What they promise is that you will get a hearing within 30 days, not an administrative review of your case by Service Canada within 30 days followed by a hearing that may or may not be within 30 days," Ms. Charlton said. Appeals that take too long are dropped for a number of reasons, she said, including the fact that many people find jobs and move on. without pressing for the benefits that are owed to them.
Meanwhile, the restructuring of the appeals system will only lengthen the process, Ms. Charlton said. If a well-staffed system with referees located across the country cannot meet the 30-day standard, "imagine what's going to happen when you go down to a tribunal of only 39 members," she said.
Each of the 700 existing referees – 300 fewer than the 1,000 the government originally intended to do the job – hears appeals as part of a three-member panel on at least two days every month. The government is replacing that system with a Social Security Tribunal that will hear appeals of decisions in EI cases, as well as those involving the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security. The new tribunal, which comes into effect on April 1, will have 74 full-time members, but just over half will be devoted to EI.
Human Resources officials say this will create a "single-window decision body" to make faster decisions and resolve appeals by eliminating an overlap in administrative processes. They also say the new process will mean less time is spent appointing, training and convening panels of part-time members.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley told the House of Commons on Monday that the current system takes too long. "That is not what Canadians deserve," Ms. Finley said. "They deserve a fast, efficient, responsive appeal system. That is what we are introducing. It is one that will meet the needs of Canadians much better."
But Neil Cohen, the executive director of the Community Unemployed Help Centre in Winnipeg, said he believes the new system will inevitably increase the delays for EI claimants whose cases go to appeal. "I think the effect is as predictable as the snow in winter," Mr. Cohen said. "It will take longer for appeals to be scheduled, people will be discouraged from appealing decisions, and I think fewer decisions will be overturned."