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Minister of Human Resources Diane Finley during Question Period in the House of Commons, Oct. 26, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The number of jobless Canadians who managed to connect with an agent when they called Service Canada looking for their employment insurance cheques reached its lowest level in six years this fall.

Service Canada employees say the decline in staff size is the cause of the jammed phone lines – and the problems that many unemployed people are having in getting their benefits applications processed.

But Human Resources Minister Diane Finley suggests the workers in her agency are deliberately cutting back on service as part of a backlash against the changes being made by the Conservative government to automate the EI process.

In a letter to the Charlottetown Guardian dated Nov. 21, Ms. Finley says it is most interesting that "in the month that we announced we will be overhauling and improving EI processing to better serve Canadians – before any changes were introduced – productivity and performance went from being on par with last year's performance at this time, to the worst in five years."

More than 1,000 processing agents have been let go since the spring. Ms. Finley says they were temporary employees hired specifically to deal with a balloon in EI claims during the recent recession.

But the Canada Employment and Immigration Union says the number of processing agents is now well below prerecession levels. And the union is furious that Ms. Finley would suggest there is a work-to-rule campaign going on.

"If service levels are the worst that they've been in five years, I can assure you, it is entirely because Service Canada was far too quick to cut positions on the premise that automation would compensate," said Steve McCuaig, the union's national executive vice-president.

Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Ms. Finley, said the Human Resources Department is engaged in a process of modernizing its systems that will ultimately allow for better, faster and more cost-effective service to Canadians.

But Mr. McCuaig said "there isn't an automated system in the world that can process applications that are as complex as EI legislation is and as unique to the applicants and their circumstances."

Meanwhile, statistics supplied by Ms. Finley to Rodger Cuzner, the Liberal human resources critics, show the decline in service at the department's call centres has been going on for at least six years.

In 2005-06, 58 per cent of the calls about EI from across Canada actually made it through to an agent. By September of this year, that had dropped to 32 per cent.

And, in some regions, the drop was much more pronounced. In Edmonton, for instance, the successful calls fell from 91 per cent to 31 per cent over the six-year span. In Regina, they fell from 84 per cent to 26 per cent.

The department denies that it has failed to renew the contracts of temporary employees in the Service Canada call centres.

"Through normal attrition, 84 people have left the call centres since July of this year and we have not replaced those positions," Ms. Queen said. "However, for the record, there have been no non-renewals of term contracts or terminations within the EI or [Canada Pension Plan]call centres as a result of financial pressures."

The union representatives, however, says that is patently untrue and that hundreds of temporary call centre employees across the country have been told they are no longer needed. They point to grievances that have been filed by their members who were let go in September, and memos from managers telling employees that staff is being reduced as a result of monetary cutbacks.