The federal New Democrats say the Human Resources Minister is acting like the Grinch who stole Christmas for refusing to approve overtime pay to employment-insurance processing agents who normally work extra hours in December to deal with a seasonal spike in claims.
"Officers processing EI claims will not be able to put in overtime over the holiday season, unlike previous years, thanks to this government," Alain Giguère, the NDP MP for Marc–Aurèle–Fortin told the House of Commons on Friday.
"This is, however, the season when Service Canada needs to deal with an increase in the number of claims from unemployed people – mothers and fathers who won't be able to pay their bills and offer their children some gifts," Mr. Giguère said. "Has this government become the Grinch who stole Christmas?"
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley replied that Mr. Giguère has facts wrong.
"There is a rise in EI at this time of year and that's why we have a long-standing tradition of adding extra resources in order to process them and we will continue to respect that tradition," she said. "We will be adding additional resources."
But workers, both at the EI processing centres and the Service Canada call centres – where phones are so jammed that only one in three calls about employment insurance actually gets through to an agent – say they have been told that overtime has been prohibited almost everywhere.
The workers say a cross-Canada survey of representatives and members of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union has found just two EI processing sites where a limited amount of extra resources have been added this month. There are 121 such sites in Canada.
The Human Resources department was asked Thursday to provide a list of the sites where overtime is being offered or other resources are being utilized to deal with the rise in claims. Six hours later, Ms. Finley's spokesperson responded to reiterate the minister's assertion that resources would be added but she refused to identify any place where that is occurring.
The decision to curtail overtime hours that are routinely offered in December comes after 18,600 Canadians were thrown out of work last month and another 54,000 lost their jobs in October – the first back-to-back increases in the number of unemployed recorded since the recession of 2008 and 2009.
The number of claims for EI benefits normally takes a large jump between November and January with the increase peaking in December. Last year, for instance, there were 264,220 claims filed in the final month of the year, compared to 153,450 filed in September.
Meanwhile, hundreds of processing agents were let go earlier this year as the department tries to rely more heavily on its automated system.
The reduced staffing levels at Service Canada have already created extended delays for EI applicants whose claims cannot be processed electronically. That occurs if there is anything problematic on an application like an extraneous hyphen in a name that was not replicated on supporting documentation.
Some EI recipients report that it is taking two or three months for their first benefits cheque to arrive.
"I had a 'dire need' request today at work that was six weeks old!" a call-centre worker said Thursday. "That mean that six weeks ago, an agent in the call centre escalated this person's claim due to extreme personal hardship [but]nothing has been done to resolve it since other than escalation, after escalation, after escalation."