The federal government is moving to address the long waits for jobless Canadians trying to get answers to their questions on employment insurance at federal call centres.
The Liberals often criticized the previous Conservative government over the backlogs at Service Canada call centres, and are now under pressure themselves to address the problem.
John O'Leary, director of communications for Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk, said the government realizes it must improve the service, and that is why the budget invested $92-million to improve service delivery, including $73-million over two years to improve access to EI call centres.
"Our plan includes increasing the number of call centre agents, and work is under way to get those new agents on the front line as quickly as possible this year. We have more to do to improve service quality for Canadians. We will have more to say about our plan to improve service quality very soon," Mr. O'Leary said.
The government hopes to start work on the improvements in May, with visits to Service Canada call centres to consult front-line staff and the union that represents them, and other stakeholders, according to sources.
Calls to Service Canada's 1-800 EI information line are often met with wait times of more than 10 minutes or an automated message that tells people looking for help with their claims that the centres are experiencing a high volume of calls.
The Liberals have blamed the Conservatives for the problem because they cut hundreds of millions to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada – now renamed Employment and Social Development Canada – including staff reductions at the call centres.
Data obtained through Access to Information show that the number of calls answered decreased from 286,321 in September, 2015, to 258,047 calls in January of this year. (Numbers for calls not answered were not provided.) The data also show the wait to speak with an agent increased from about 11 minutes to 20 minutes in the same time period. That is well below the government's national service standard.
From April, 2015, to January, 2016, Service Canada's goal was for 80 per cent of calls to be answered within 10 minutes. However, the call centres never reached that, according to figures tabled in the House of Commons in response to a written question from NDP employment critic Niki Ashton.
In their best month – June – call centres met that standard 64.3 per cent of the time. They met it only 19.6 per cent of the time in January. Regionally speaking, Western Canada call centres had the lowest service standard at 26.4 per cent, compared to 65.5 per cent – the highest - in Atlantic Canada.
What's more, many Canadians could not even reach an agent. Callers heard an automated message nearly 7.4 million times between April, 2015, and January of this year.
Sally Tan, a Vancouver mother, tried to reach the EI call centre about a change to her maternity leave last November. After dozens of calls and three visits to her local Service Canada location, she still had not spoken with an agent in February. She finally heard back from Service Canada after contacting her local MP, Joyce Murray.
"I'm financially stable. I'm not dying for this money. I don't need it to pay my rent. But I can't imagine somebody who can't speak English, who can't navigate the system, can't advocate for themselves," Ms. Tan said.
Ms. Ashton is urging the government to bring in additional resources quickly, including more full-time call centre agents, so Canadians can access EI faster.
"A record number of Canadians are hurting, obviously owing to the situation out west in particular," Ms. Ashton said. "The government should have been better prepared and should be acting to fix the problems right away."
The Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU), which represents most Service Canada workers, agrees the Liberals need to hire additional staff.
"The government cannot say they are investing in public services without providing the resources to deliver," said Chris Aylward, vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and CEIU trustee.