Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Canadians are waiting for the federal government to process their claims for employment insurance – a queue that newly released documents show has doubled since 2007 as Services Canada reduces its staff.
In October of 2007, there were 181,931 people waiting for their claims to be processed, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail using federal Access to Information legislation. By October of this year, that number had climbed to 360,481 – and according to past seasonal trends, is likely to be higher now.
Growth in the waiting list for benefits parallels a decline in temporary and permanent staff in the processing centres, with numbers 13 per cent lower than in October, 2007. Hundreds of additional processing agents were hired during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 but those people, and others, have since been let go or left without being replaced.
The result has been a system in turmoil, as documented in a series of Globe stories over the past two months. Unemployed people are unable to get through by telephone to find out what is delaying their benefits. The newly released documents reveal wild fluctuations in temporary staff at Service Canada's call centres where the phone lines as so jammed that just one in three calls is answered.
Many of the unemployed are turning up at Service Canada centres instead and are extremely frustrated. Service Canada workers in a number of cities are reporting receiving threats of violence.
One woman who waited for months for an answer is Lorena Delim, a health-care aide who went on maternity leave a year ago when her son was born. The baby died in August – a tragedy Ms. Delim cannot bring herself to discuss even four months later.
She immediately told Service Canada that the boy had passed away. Because of her fragile emotional state, she was advised to convert some of the remaining months of her maternity leave to disability leave.
Weeks later, she had received no cheque for the period after the baby's death but she did get a letter from Service Canada telling her she had to pay back more than $500 in benefits.
Ms. Delim tried repeatedly to telephone a government agent to set things straight but could not get past the message machines. More than once she went into the local Service Canada centre in an attempt to resolve the issue. "They e-mailed for the processing centre to call me back but I never heard from them again," she said in a telephone interview.
Ms. Delim eventually turned to Winnipeg's Unemployed Help Centre to see if the staff there could get through to Service Canada on her behalf. In the week before Christmas – three weeks after she had returned to her job – she was finally told she would be getting benefits for September and October.
Although the number of people who, like Ms. Delim, are waiting has spiked in 2011, the 248,659 EI claims filed in October were about the same as in Octobers past, the documents obtained by The Globe show.
The documents did not give figures for November and December of 2011. But the records show that the number of Canadians waiting for their first benefits cheque annually jumps by as much as 100,000 during those months as a result of seasonal fluctuations. So the real number of unemployed Canadians currently waiting for their first EI payment could be approaching 500,000.
In response to questions from The Globe, the Human Resources Department said it works to "maintain a flexible and sustainable workforce capacity comprising both permanent and temporary employees, working on a full- or part-time basis."
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says fewer people are needed because her department is moving to a more automated system.
But Service Canada workers point out that the system became automated four years ago. And they say the depletion of their ranks means any claim that requires human intervention is taking additional weeks and even months to process.
"I liken this to a ticking time bomb," says Neil Cohen, the executive director of the Community Unemployed Help Centre in Winnipeg.
"We have clients who are dealing with depression issues who have talked about suicide and those threats have to be taken seriously [as do]threats of violence against Service Canada workers," Mr. Cohen said. "The federal government has just ignored the problem."