Under fire over poor service, the Department of Veterans Affairs is looking to hire dozens of new front-line staff across the country who are willing to start work "as soon as possible."
The embattled department posted a wave of new job notices this week, listing 50 Canadian cities as potential locations for hiring new client-service agents and 41 cities where the department is looking to fill case-manager positions.
Veterans Affairs Canada is the second department this week – along with Employment and Social Development Canada – to announce hiring plans after several years of staff cuts that coincided with vocal complaints from Canadians.
Opposition MPs said this week's hiring plans represent an admission by the Conservative government that its cuts to the federal public service went too far.
The size of the Veterans Affairs Department has shrunk in recent years from a peak of 4,137 full-time staff in 2009 to 3,188 this year, a 23-per-cent reduction.
Carl Gannon, the national president of the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees, said front-line staff are overwhelmed by casework, which ultimately affects veterans seeking help.
"The veterans themselves are the ones that are suffering," he said. "We are so short-staffed right now on the front lines that it's actually kind of disgusting when it really comes down to it."
The client-service agent and case-manager positions were posted Monday during a week when the Conservative government is facing heated questions over service levels for veterans.
The job postings indicate the number of positions that will be filled has yet to be determined.
"This is a collective staffing process to create pools of qualified candidates that may be used to staff this position and similar positions in various work locations across the country on a permanent, temporary, full-time or part-time basis," the postings state.
There are also postings available for clerk positions with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. The union questioned whether the postings will actually lead to new hires. Mr. Gannon said there are existing pools of candidates that the department could choose from if it wished to increase staff levels quickly.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Montreal Wednesday to attend the funeral for former Montreal Canadiens player Jean Béliveau, but on Tuesday he defended the staffing decisions taking place at Veterans Affairs Canada.
"I could give thousands of examples of where we have streamlined back-office support, including, of course, eliminating photocopy and processing clerks in place of digital medical records," Mr. Harper said in response to a question from the NDP.
"There is the difference. The NDP wanted to keep bureaucrats to do nothing but process and delay payments to veterans under a program it actually voted against. On this side, we cut down the bureaucracy. We deliver service to the veterans," he said.
Ashlee Smith, a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, said the postings are about ensuring that veterans continue to receive "the highest quality" of service delivery.
"We are continuing to reduce back-office expenses while increasing front-line services for veterans," she said in an e-mail.
The Conservative government has faced heated questions in the House of Commons since last month's Auditor-General's report found vets are waiting months or years to access mental-health benefits.
Mr. Fantino has also faced criticism over the past year over the government's decision to shut down nine regional offices that serve veterans.
The minister has argued that the decision was based on low case loads at the locations, which were in Corner Brook, Charlottetown, Sydney, N.S., Thunder Bay, Windsor, Ont., Brandon, Saskatoon, Kelowna, B.C., and Prince George.
The client-service-agent positions posted this week include potential jobs at eight of those nine cities, excluding Prince George.
Mr. Fantino has said the department is moving toward a system where veterans can receive service at the more than 600 Service Canada centres across the country.