Service Canada workers say they're dealing with frustrated and increasingly volatile clients who are unable to get through on jammed phone lines to find out why their Employment Insurance cheques are being delayed as Christmas approaches.
Winnipeg police confirmed Friday they are investigating a complaint about an incident that occurred Wednesday at the Service Canada centre in the Manitoba capital.
Workers say a man who was irate at the handling of his claim scaled a metre-and-a-half high counter and lunged at an employee who suffered injuries to his head, knee and hand.
A day later, another client at the same centre was verbally abusive and threatened to come over the desk of a Service Canada worker. When the worker backed away, the man ripped up his documents and threw them at her.
The workers say the federal Human Resources department's decision to eliminate the jobs of hundreds of processing agents this year is forcing some jobless Canadians to wait months for their first benefits cheque. And the shrinking staffing levels at Service Canada call centres have created phone lines so overloaded just one in three callers actually reaches an agent. That means more people are turning up at the centres to find out when they will get paid.
Susan Norman, the national vice-president for the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, which represents the workers, said she cannot recall incidents like the ones that occurred in Winnipeg this week. Staff are feeling both apprehensive and vulnerable, she said.
"We know this time of year is busier, and of course with them not backfilling positions, it's taking longer for claims to be processed," Ms. Norman said. "The frustration of not getting through the to call centre when [the claimants] do have a question is the other part. By the time people hit the counter, they are quite agitated."
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says the staffing cuts are part of her department's attempts to move from a paper system to one that is automated. But Service Canada employees point out that the system has been automated for four years.
The number of claims for EI benefits normally takes a large jump between November and January with the increase peaking in December. And this year the increase is occurring as unemployment rates rise.
The department usually approves overtime in December to handle the influx of claims and get money into the hands of jobless Canadians before Christmas. Service Canada workers say overtime has been prohibited this year.
Ms. Finley insists her department is taking steps to deal with the increased workload.
"We understand that at this time of year it is even harder for them to deal with day to day expenses," she told the Commons Thursday – the final say of the fall sitting. "That is why we are putting extra resources to processing these claims. We do that every year and we are doing it this year."
Opposition members responded by yelling yelled "No you're not!" across the floor for the Commons.
The Human Resources department has refused repeated requests for details about the "extra resources" referenced by the minister.
The union says the department has reassigned some of the clerical staff from its integrity branch – the section that ensures that the amounts being paid are correct – to fill the jobs left vacant by the terminated claims processors. But that means their own jobs, which are already backlogged, are not being done.