Human Resources Minister Diane Finley is boosting staff at Service Canada to help reduce a mounting backlog in employment insurance claims that is forcing many jobless Canadians to wait months for their first benefits cheque.
The delays have been growing since October, 2010, even as Service Canada laid off hundreds of employees from its processing centres and allowed staff at its call centres to leave without being replaced.
But December and January are always months when the number of EI claims spikes, and this year the volume is even higher than anticipated.
So Ms. Finley has authorized the hiring of 165 new temporary employees to process claims, and has agreed that 214 other Service Canada workers should be reassigned to the processing section. Many of the additional hands have come from the integrity branch, which is responsible for cracking down on people who try to cheat the system.
In addition, the agency has shifted 120 staff from part-time to full-time, "all to provide the additional support needed to address the numbers of EI claims," the minister said.
"Service Canada continues to carefully monitor EI processing to ensure the best possible service is provided to Canadians who are in need of benefits," she said. "We all take this matter seriously, which is why I am receiving regular updates on this file."
Starting in January, the agency authorized employees to work overtime. Service Canada workers say they are normally asked to put in extra hours in December to handle the seasonal increase in claims, but that was not permitted in 2011.
The moves by the Human Resources Minister come after months of complaints from employees at Service Canada who say their dwindling numbers have made it impossible to keep up with the workload.
This week, the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU), which represents the processing agents and call-centre employees, said about 2,500 of its members filed grievances against Ms. Finley over a letter she wrote in November to the Charlottetown Guardian in which she suggested the processing delays had nothing to do with staff reductions.
Ms. Finley has explained that some of the employees who were laid off had been hired on a temporary basis to deal with a ballooning number of claims during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, and were no longer needed. And she has told the House of Commons that the department's move to an automated system also permitted a reduction in staff.
Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Ms. Finley, said the additional complement of staff is a strong indication of just how seriously the minister is paying attention to the issue, and more claims processors may be hired in the future.
"Service Canada is doing everything they can to get all hands on deck to work through the processing of EI claims to make sure that Canadians get their benefits just as quickly as possible," Ms. Queen said.
The most recent numbers obtained by The Globe and Mail show that, in October of last year, there were 360,481 Canadians waiting for their first EI benefits cheques. The backlog has undoubtedly increased since then.
Steve McCuaig, the CEIU's national executive vice-president, said the rehiring effort is very new.
"We will see how these things improve situations," Mr. McCuaig said. "But, ultimately, there is nothing permanent in place here. These are just very temporary means of fixing the problem, like putting a Band-Aid on a very big sore."
Jean Crowder, the Human Resources critic for the federal New Democrats, said she believes Ms. Finley succumbed to pressure from the news media as well as complaints from her fellow politicians.
"There has been a huge public push around it and I know MPs offices are being swamped with calls about EI," Ms. Crowder said. "So they are getting it from about three or four different sources."