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question period

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 21, 2011.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

In the face of criticism that Employment Insurance benefits are taking too long to reach jobless Canadians, the Conservative government says it's trying to automate its processes.

But people who work in Service Canada's call centres say the system is getting closer to a complete collapse every week and automation is part of the problem.

Jean Crowder, the NDP human-resources critic, told the House of Commons during Question Period Tuesday that Canadians contacting Service Canada are facing "unacceptable delays and this government is refusing to address the problem."

Employees at Service Canada's call centres say the problem stems from a the declining number of people who are employed to answer phones and process applications.

The government denies staff levels at call centres have been reduced, but employees say the contracts of hundreds of temporary workers have not been renewed and more than a thousand processing agents have been let go.

Asked Ms. Crowder: "When will the Conservatives reverse their plan to cut more employees at Service Canada?"

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley replied that her department is working to improve service to Canadians. "That's why we're automating the systems for the call systems and the EI processing systems," she said, "so that Canadians can access the benefits that they need more efficiently, more effectively and more affordably."

But Ms. Crowder shot back that the minister has simply automated her talking points. "The reality is that service automation is already happening," she said, "and it's clearly not the answer."

One way in which Service Canada has tried to automate its systems is through the electronic imaging of all paper documents, except employment records, that are submitted by clients including medical notes, quit questionnaires, dismissal questionnaires, self employment questionnaires, and so on.

At one time, these documents were transcribed onto the client's electronic file by a clerk. But today they are sent to central offices where the images are captured and stored in the system.

If, for example, a client in Vancouver submits a doctor's note to extend their benefits, the note will be forwarded to Edmonton where it will be imaged. That transfer can take as many as 10 days. Then there is an additional wait of up to three days for the note to be registered as new information on a claim and an additional delay of as many as 21 days for the processing office to update the file.

With current backlogs, call centre employees say timeframes can be longer.

Once a document has been electronically attached to a file, a client can contact the call centre to ask that their file be immediately updated. But Service Canada employees say only processing agents and a small number of call-centre agents are permitted to view electronic documents attached to claims and that getting into the queue to talk to those people is almost impossible.

Ms. Crowder wanted to know why, after paying EI premiums for years, Canadians are not getting help when they need it.

Mr. Finley replied that, during the recent recession, her government too significant steps to help the unemployed by extending the benefits period, creating better access to training, and helping people who have lost their jobs get back to work.

"Unfortunately, all the NDP can do is try to do what is easiest," she said. "That is to have access, not to jobs, but to EI benefits."