Jobless Canadians who have been waiting weeks and months for their first employment insurance cheque will be able to tell their stories to opposition New Democrats who plan to visit regions of the country where EI processing centres are being closed.
The launch of the opposition tour comes as new documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that the number of Canadians who visited Service Canada centres to inquire about the status of their EI claims swelled from 88,567 in April of last year to 147,065 in December.
Some of that spike can be attributed to a seasonal fluctuation. But a similar seasonal spike in July, before the layoff of hundreds of processing agents, produced a much smaller rise in visits to the centres – where some staff say they fear frustrated claimants will turn to violence.
Jean Crowder, the NDP Human Resources critic who will travel across the country to hear about problems with EI, told reporters on Wednesday that she hopes to "encourage Canadians to contact their Conservative members of Parliament who have some power within their own caucus to put pressure on their own government to change the course that they are taking."
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley argued throughout the fall that the processing agents who were laid off by her department had been hired on a temporary basis during the recent economic downturn and were no longer needed because her department was moving to a more automated system.
But, when faced with a massive and growing backlog of claims, Ms. Finley authorized in January the temporary rehiring of some of the processing agents and eliminated a freeze on overtime. As a result, the department says, there has been a significant decline in the number of EI claims waiting to be processed.
Meanwhile, Service Canada has increased from 24 days to 45 the amount of time that a claim can "poll" through its computer system looking for a record of employment from an employer. When asked in January about the increase, the department explained that the extra time "allows employers and claimants to provide the required record of employments while the claim is still in the polling period."
New documents released to The Globe and Mail under Access to Information say the additional days were needed because, "due to high workload volumes, regions are unable to complete the work items within the 24-day period." But, when asked Wednesday if the high workload was the reason for the increase, Human Resources maintained it was not.
The same documents say the increase means there is a "risk" that some claims containing errors that would previously have been spewed out after 24 days will remain "unnecessarily" in the computer system for 45 days before they are rejected, corrected and reprocessed.
According to Ms. Crowder, nearly half of all applications for EIare being delayed and more than 22,000 people have been forced to wait 128 days or more for their cheques. "As a result of EI delays, the number of applicants in dire straits with no way to pay for basic necessities like food and rent is increasing," she said.
All federal departments are preparing for a financial squeeze as the government crafts a budget that will reduce a multibillion-dollar deficit. Widespread layoffs within the civil service have been predicted, and one poll suggested this week that Canadians would prefer cuts to tax increases.
But Ms. Crowder pointed out that Employment Insurance is funded through employee contributions, not tax revenues. "If you are paying into an insurance scheme, which is what this is," she said, "[the government]should hire a reasonable number of people to process your claim in a timely way."