The union representing Canada Revenue Agency workers is concerned that seniors and vulnerable Canadians may have a hard time accessing the new emergency payments announced this week.
In an effort to get money out the door quickly, the Liberal government opted against proposals to expand the existing Employment Insurance system run by Service Canada. Instead, two new programs – a $10-billion Emergency Care Benefit and a $5-billion Emergency Support Benefit – will be primarily administered through the Canada Revenue Agency.
The Emergency Care Benefit will provide bi-weekly payments of up to $900 for workers who are quarantined because of COVID-19, caring for sick family members or for parents who are not working to take care of their children.
Canadians who are enrolled in the CRA’s “My Account” system will be able to log in, agree to a short attestation stating that they fall into one of the eligible scenarios and then be eligible for regular payments through direct deposit.
Marc Brière, national president of the Union of Taxation Employees that represents CRA workers, said Canadians without internet access or who are not comfortable with computers may have a hard time with this system. Specifically, he listed low-income Canadians, seniors and recent immigrants as groups that may have trouble navigating how to apply for funding under the new programs.
He said the CRA will need to ensure it has enough staff available to answer questions by phone at a time when large numbers of agency staff are working from home due to the new coronavirus.
“I have some concerns," Mr. Brière told The Globe in an interview Thursday. “If they don’t have My Account, they’ll need to call in, and that’s where [the pressure] is going to happen. Are they going to have enough people to take that call volume?”
Mr. Brière said the union had also raised concerns with CRA management about working conditions in relation to the coronavirus. But he said that in recent days, the employer has responded positively by providing staff with the equipment they need to work from home and allowing for more spacing in workspaces where staff are still present.
Mr. Brière said this week’s announcement of tax deadline extensions should help staff in managing the workload during the busy tax season.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that he would be meeting with the head of the public service, Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart, to discuss the logistics of processing the new programs.
“Our team is hard at work with the public service and making sure these new supports get to Canadians as quickly as possible," he said Thursday.
CRA officials said they acknowledge vulnerable populations will need extra support as the new programs are rolled out and staff are working on the details.
Spokesman Dany Morin said the agency will be ready to accept applications when they launch in April. In the meantime, Mr. Morin said agency staff are focused on processing tax returns.
“Given the current environment, callers may experience longer than usual wait time to speak to an agent. We currently have fewer agents available to answer calls,” he said in an e-mail. The CRA is asking that until the new programs are launched, callers should stay on the line only for questions related to their tax return, their benefits or to sign up for My Account.
Once the new programs launch, Mr. Morin said there will be three ways for Canadians to apply: the CRA’s My Account, the My Service Canada Account, or by calling a toll free number – 1-800-959-2019 – that will be equipped with an automated application process.
The generally positive assessment of working conditions by the union representing CRA workers is in sharp contrast to warnings this week from the union representing workers at Service Canada, the department responsible for processing EI claims and for staffing the face-to-face Service Canada Centres across the country.
Crystal Warner, national executive vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, told The Globe this week that the local centres are overwhelmed by the volume of newly unemployed people applying for EI and workers feel the conditions are unsafe.
In an update Thursday, she said management has since agreed to several of the union’s requests, including adding security and providing front-line staff with gloves.
“Tensions are high,” she said. “It is still a dangerous situation to have [the centres] open.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters. Sign up