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Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s office confirmed the government is adding 400 public servants to manage employment insurance files in response to a big spike in the number of Canadians complaining of poor service.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservative government is adding 400 public servants to manage employment insurance files in response to a big spike in the number of Canadians complaining of poor service, including unanswered phone calls and processing delays.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney's office confirmed the plans to The Globe and Mail in response to questions about negative performance statistics the minister recently tabled in the House of Commons.

Canadians made nearly 10,000 complaints last year over the quality of service related to the EI program, a 40 per cent spike from the year before.

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NDP MP Robert Chisholm welcomed the new hires, but said the government's decision contradicts past assurances that federal public service cuts would have no impact on Canadians.

"These cuts are affecting the ability of the government to provide services to people who are in desperate need," he said, comparing the delays for unemployed Canadians seeking EI to the delays veterans face dealing with Veterans Affairs, which has also had significant staff cuts.

This year, the 21,097 staff in Mr. Kenney's department, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), represents a 19 per cent reduction from 2010 levels. While the department had temporary growth during the recession, staffing is still down 11 per cent from 2008 levels. Staffing levels across the core public service have declined 9.8 per cent between 2010 to 2014.

Alexandra Fortier, a spokesperson for Mr. Kenney, said the additional staff are new hires and some are already on the job.

"Clients should expect to see impacts, such as shorter wait times, in the coming months," she said, adding that the plan follows a review of EI processing issues by Nova Scotia Conservative MP Scott Armstrong, the minister's parliamentary secretary.

About one quarter of the new hires will be for government call centres, while the rest will be for processing claims. The jobs will be two-year contracts as the government moves to increased automation, which it expects will eventually allow the department to function with fewer staff.

The federal data recently tabled in Parliament show complaints are up dramatically since 2006-07, when only 444 were received. Complaints peaked in 2011-12 at 15,593. That fell back to 7,119 the next year before rising again to 9,998 in 2013-14.

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The data, which were released in response to written questions by the NDP's Mr. Chisholm, also show worsening scores for processing times and for answering the phone when Canadians call. Earlier this year, Service Canada, the division of ESDC that is responsible for administering the EI program, eased its performance target of leaving callers on hold for no longer than three minutes 80 per cent of the time. The new target is a wait of no more than 10 minutes, 80 per cent of the time.

Steve McCuaig, national executive vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, said the government has shown a pattern of hiring temporary staff when the EI backlog becomes too large.

He said staffing cuts at ESDC can hurt federal revenue, because fewer workers are assigned to enforce program rules and collect over-payments. Mr. McCuaig said the cuts appear to have been deeper for front-line service staff than senior management.

"I won't dispute the possibility that maybe there was some excess [in the public service], but certainly not at the processing and operational levels," he said. "It's ridiculous."

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