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A closed Service Canada location in Toronto on March 26, 2020.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The federal government is shutting the doors to all of its 317 Service Canada Centres – where people can apply in person for employment insurance, Old Age Security, pension benefits and passports – on Friday after employees en masse refused to work.

The government bent to pressure Thursday evening from the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, which represents 17,000 Service Canada employees, including 3,360 who staff the centres.

Many had called in sick or refused to work because they didn’t feel safe during the coronavirus pandemic, despite safe distancing measures put in place that kept the centres open, said Crystal Warner, executive vice-president with the union.

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The centres were crowded and efforts to control the traffic resulted in long lines outside and sometimes irate visitors, she said. In recent days, so many missed work that 187 centres closed on Thursday – almost 60 per cent of the network.

Under the new measures, staff will still come to work at the centres but the front doors will be locked. People who show up will be redirected to Service Canada’s website and phone number. Staff will help them remotely by appointment, except in rare circumstances where applicants have accessibility issues. In those cases, they can come in to meet staff in sanitized rooms, at a safe distance.

Ahmed Hussen, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, said Canadians will still be able to access their benefits online and over the phone.

“This will allow more Canadians to get the support they need, while better protecting both them and our staff,” he said in a statement.

Job losses across Canada have exploded in the past two weeks amid a widespread shutdown of the economy to slow the spread of the virus. That overwhelmed the government as almost one million people last week alone filed for unemployment benefits.

The government encouraged Canadians to apply for services available through the centres online, by telephone or by mail instead, asking those with symptoms of COVID-19 to self-isolate and stay away.

It gave protective gloves to employees and posted workers by the doors to limit the number of people inside.

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In normal times, the centres get 11,000 visitors a day, and 95 per cent of EI claimants apply online.

But people complained the jammed website didn’t work or they couldn’t get through on the telephone. Canadians with limited means lost access to the internet as their local libraries shut.

As a result, many went out of frustration to Service Canada Centres despite warnings to stay home. In some cases they braved lineups to file applications in person.

Ms. Warner said tempers boiled over and staff, who she said are among the lowest-paid workers in government, bore the brunt of it. There were altercations at Service Canada Centres in Ontario, Quebec and B.C. after frustrated applicants became aggressive and violent, she said. In some instances, she said people coughed deliberately on staff.

“At some point a lot of our workers got so scared to come in to work they called in sick,” she said, adding “they’re not feeling safe [and] they’re not safe.” The union encouraged members to invoke their right to refuse dangerous work under the Canada Labour Code and several did.

“More workers will come back Friday because the doors will be closed,” Ms. Warner said Thursday after learning of the shutting of the centres.

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“This means more people will be served.”

Ms. Warner credited Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who tweeted last week to Mr. Hussen, who oversees Service Canada, that the centres had become crowded and unsafe. She also retweeted Ms. Warner’s message that her attempts to meet with the minister had gone unanswered.

Mr. Hussen thanked the opposition MP on Twitter and asked officials to look into the matter. In an interview Thursday, Ms. Rempel Garner said, “we have to manage the health and safety of our public servants. Now the government has to say how they’re processing” the surge in jobless claims.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week acknowledged the delays and frustrations newly unemployed Canadians are experiencing applying for benefits, and said “public servants are working around the clock while dealing with unprecedented demand” and that an online application portal will launch “as quickly as possible.”

The government is shuffling 1,300 public servants, many from Passport Canada, into roles processing claims and taking calls.

Mr. Trudeau also announced a new “Canada emergency response benefit” that will provide $1,800 after tax to affected Canadians, replacing two earlier benefits.

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