Workers who help Canadians obtain employment insurance benefits are demanding that Human Resources Minister Diane Finley apologize and resign for implying they have caused the backlogs that are forcing some jobless people to wait months for their first cheque.
The Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU) said Thursday that about 2,500 of its members have filed grievances against Ms. Finley over a letter she wrote in November to the Charlottetown Guardian.
In that letter, Ms. Finley said 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."
The workers broadly interpreted that as a suggestion by the minister that they deliberately created delays.
Ms. Finley did not respond to requests for comment from The Globe.
Steve McCuaig, the CEIU's national executive vice-president, said the grievances were filed at the suggestion of the union's national executive because "people were so mad and they were pointing the finger at us saying what are you going to do about this."
Mr. McCuaig said the minister is not required to respond but he hopes she will feel obligated to do so.
Rodger Cuzner, the Human Resources critic for the federal Liberal Party, said on Thursday that it was "shameful for [Ms. Finley]to train the guns back on the union and to blame the union for the situation."
The minister's letter was written as the delays and backlogs at Service Canada, where hundreds of claims processors were laid off last year, were mounting.
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that 360,481 Canadians were waiting for their claims to be processed in October, 2011, which is twice as many as in October, 2007. "And it's not getting any better," Mr. McCuaig said. "It's only getting worse."
Meanwhile, phone lines to Service Canada's call centres are so jammed that fewer than one in three calls gets through to an agent, creating additional frustration for those who need to resolve problems with their claims.
Ms. Finley has explained that some of the employees who were laid off had been hired on a temporary basis to deal with a ballooning number of claims during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, and were no longer needed. And she has told the House of Commons the department's move to an automated system also permitted a reduction in staff.
But the Service Canada employees point out that the system was automated four years ago and the delays are becoming more and more pronounced. Claims that are filed with no errors and all their supporting documentation can be processed quickly. But those with problems can take months.
In December, Service Canada increased to 45 days from 27 days the amount of time its computers will attempt to process claims before rejecting them as a result of errors or missing documentation like records of employment.
The department says this was done to improve the efficiency of claims processing, particularly when records of employment are received late from employers or clients.
But one Service Canada employee said the real reason for increasing the maximum computer processing time is a backlog of paper employment records waiting to be input and it is taking longer than 27 days to get that information into the system.
Mr. McCuaig said the problem with increasing the processing time to 45 days is that unemployed Canadians must now wait even longer to find something is wrong with their claim. "And that isn't good for anyone."