There is an office within Service Canada where jobless people who have waited undue lengths of time for their first employment-insurance cheque can complain about the delay – but Service Canada employees are not permitted to tell them about it.
It's called the Office of Client Satisfaction, and it promises to work to "resolve any issues brought to its attention." But call centre agents who field questions about EI claims say they have been warned by their bosses not to mention its existence to the frustrated people on the other end of the line.
"The only way they are allowed to give information about it is if the client specifically says, 'Do you have information about the Office of Client Satisfaction,' " said Steve McCuaig, the national vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union. "So how are they supposed to ask for something they don't even know exists?"
It's a bind that the agents find themselves in more often as the work force assigned to process claims shrinks to meet federal budget restraints, and the number of EI claims that take more than the maximum 28 days to be decided increases correspondingly.
Even though the jobless rate went up last month, Service Canada's work force is expected to decline even further as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada trims costs to meet deficit reduction targets. So the lines at Service Canada which are already jammed with anxious EI claimants are likely to get even busier.
Many of the angry claimants are turning to their local MP for help.
"Why should they have to call an MP when they've got me on the phone?" said one Service Canada call-centre agent. "I tell them we are late, but can't take their complaint? Crazy. Who wouldn't go nuts at that? We deliver bad news but aren't accountable to it."
Another agent, however, said there would be little point in directing someone whose benefits have been delayed to the Office of Client Satisfaction because that office can only turn to the same overworked processing agents who are fielding complaints forwarded by the call-centre staff.
Until July, those processing agents were required to return calls to people who had complaints about their claims within two days. That has been increased to five days because the agents could not keep up with the volume of calls. And Service Canada staff say even the five-day deadline is not being met.
The Human Resources Department was asked for basic information about the Office of Client Satisfaction on Tuesday, and to explain why call-centre agents could not divulge its existence to clients – but no responses were provided.
Jamus Dorey of Nova Scotia applied for employment insurance on July 24. His claim was not processed until Sept. 24, and he received his first EI cheque on Sept. 28.
"It went on and on and on," he said. "I would call almost every second day for the full eight weeks and not one person from Service Canada actually called me back."
Mr. Dorey found a job in October. But as the single father of a young son, he says he is very glad he had his own savings to get through two months with no income.
Throughout the days and weeks that he was trying to get answers out of Service Canada, no one told him about the Office of Client Satisfaction. It was the staff working for Rodger Cuzner, his Liberal MP who also happens to be the party's critic for Human Resources, who told him there was an office within Service Canada where he could make a complaint.
Mr. Dorey said he called the Office of Client Satisfaction and was told someone would get back to him in a week. The claim was approved shortly thereafter, but he attributes the resolution to Mr. Cuzner's intervention.