Human Resources Minister Diane Finley agrees that many jobless Canadians who have been denied Employment Insurance benefits are waiting too long for appeals of those decisions to be heard.
"It isn't working," Ms. Finley said Tuesday of the process to contest decisions against the granting of EI. The delays are the reason the government is replacing the 700 part-time referees who currently decide EI appeals with 39 full-time members of a new Social Security Tribunal, the Minister told the House of Commons.
"This is exactly why we have to have to change the system," Ms. Finley said. "For the moment we only have part-time people. But we would have specialists who are working on that in order to serve Canadians so that they have appeals that are quicker and more effective."
Government documents made public this week show that 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 last fiscal year, just 63 per cent of the appeals were heard within the accepted time frame. That means unemployed Canadians, who may have already waited months to find out that their application for EI benefits had been rejected, are waiting many more weeks to plead their case.
Under the new system which goes into effect in April, said the Minister, "Canadians will get to have their appeals heard more quickly, there will be a higher consistency in the decisions, and better quality because of better information (and) having full-time people deal with the cases."
But opposition members say its ridiculous to suggest that cutting the number of people who are hearing the appeals will improve the situation.
The 700 existing part-time referees, who sit as members of three-person boards, collectively spend about 18,200 days every year determining if EI decisions were fair. The 39 members of the new tribunal, who will hear cases individually, will collectively spend about 9,000 days annually doing the same thing.
"The minister's solution is to reduce the number of people holding these hearings from 700 to 39," Anne-Marie Day, a New Democrat from Quebec, told the Commons. "To say this will speed things up is to take people for fools."
Chris Charlton, the NDP's human resources critic, pointed out that one in four unemployed Canadians waits longer than 28 days to get their application for EI processed and two out of three calls to EI call centres are not being answered on time.
"And now we learn that two out of three workers who appeal don't get a hearing within 30 days," said Ms. Charlton. "When will the minister take responsibility and fix the problem that she created?"
Critics say the new system will be more formal and will require more technical legal arguments, forcing appellants to hire lawyers. That, they say, will lead to fewer appeals being heard and fewer decisions being overturned.
David Gray, an economics professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in labour market policy, said Tuesday that the changes to the EI appeals process go hand in hand with changes the government made last spring to the circumstances under which EI recipients can refuse jobs and continue to receive benefits.
Dr. Gray said he suspects that the government is hoping that those with weaker cases drop their appeal.
The centralized appeal process "will call attention – and this is not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion – to irregularities and really uneven application across the country," said Dr. Gray. "What may rile some is if it is really, really short staffed and there is a tremendous bottleneck."