With the Conservative government planning to downsize call centres that handle employment insurance claims, the New Democrats have obtained data to show that one in every four calls is being abandoned because callers can't reach a representative.
Internal government documents released by the NDP at an Ottawa news conference Wednesday show that in larger cities like Winnipeg and Vancouver, nearly a third of the people who called Service Canada about EI last month eventually hung up because they could not speak to someone in a timely manner.
And in the final week of September, more than half of the people who called about the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security reached nothing but a busy signal.
"Folks on the other end of the line who depend on the service couldn't even get through nearly 25 per cent of the time," human resources critic Jean Crowder said. "So one out of every four people who call can't talk to anyone about the problem they are having."
Service Canada employees have received e-mails telling them that call centres in Vancouver, Montague, PEI, and the Nova Scotia communities of Glace Bay and Sydney will be reduced in size over the next three years.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has explained that the government hired extra employees on a temporary basis during the recession to handle the high volume of EI claims.
"Fortunately, thanks to our economic action plan, more Canadians are at work now than ever before, so there is not the same need to hire people to process the claims," the minister said last month when asked about the downsizing at the call centres.
"The individuals knew that they were temporary jobs, but service standards have improved compared to the 10 weeks it took when the Liberals were in power," Ms. Finley said.
She has also said Service Canada is moving away from a paper system to automated processes that will give workers more time to deal directly with the people they serve.
But Ms. Crowder said the automated system has been in place for five years and most people already try to file their claims on line.
"Less than 50 per cent of claims can be handled without an employee involved," she said. "Even a tiny anomaly in a claim will be rejected by the automated system."
Unemployed workers who need help but cannot get help by telephone will have to wait longer for the money they need to pay their bills, Ms. Crowder said.
The government, she added, "should reverse the decision to cut the staff at EI processing centres so Canadians are not left waiting for the benefits they deserve and need in these tough economic times."