Jobless Canadians are waiting longer for their first employment-insurance cheques and finding it increasingly difficult to get answers about the delays as the government reduces the number of people paid to process claims and handle calls.
The main phone line at Service Canada is constantly jammed because there is not enough staff to deal with the high volume of calls from unemployed people who want to know when they will get their money.
Meanwhile, the jobless rate rose last month to 7.3 per cent and could continue to grow if the economic recovery cannot be maintained – a trend that would put greater pressure on the EI system.
But Service Canada's work force is expected to shrink even further as Human Resources trims costs to meet deficit reduction targets. Call centres are being closed and consolidated to help achieve a savings of $247-million by March, 2013.
An additional 1,800 temporary workers were hired at the height of the 2008 recession to help with the spike in EI claims. But those people are all gone now, and the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, which represents EI processors and service agents, says there are hundreds fewer employees now than there were before the economy went into a nosedive.
The harried staff who answer the phones at the Service Canada centres say the 28-day goal for deciding whether a claim is payable is constantly exceeded.
Frustrated claimants who want to know what is holding up their benefits, and who manage to get through on the Service Canada phone line, are usually told that someone will call them back to discuss their case.
There was once a requirement for that callback to occur within two days. That was increased, on a temporary basis, to five days on July 29 and made permanent on Sept. 30 because staff have been unable to get back to people any sooner.
But Steve McCuaig, the national executive vice-president for the union, says it often takes much longer than five days for a call to be returned, even though that's what Service Canada staff are required to tell their clients.
"When a call centre agent tells somebody you are going to get a callback in five days, they know 90 per cent of the time that they're lying," Mr. McCuaig said Monday.
Meanwhile, the number of unemployed people listed as being in "dire straits" because they have no way to pay for basic necessities like rent or food is growing. Service Canada agents who used to get one of the so-called "dire needs" requests a month now say they are a daily occurrence.
Sometimes people just don't have the cash on hand to last even 28 days without EI benefits, said Colbey Peters, the local union president in Vancouver. But generally, she said, it's the people who have waited longer than the mandated times for their claims to be processed who are running into serious trouble.
Ms. Peters said agents are dealing with "very angry, very frustrated people, very desperate people."
But the government, which says some of the increased number of EI claims may be seasonal, is not prepared at this time to reconsider staff reductions.
"In these challenging economic times, we are working hard to invest in the priorities of Canadians and ensure best use of their hard-earned tax dollars," Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said in an e-mail.
"Modernizing the processing of Employment Insurance over the next three years will ultimately allow for better services for Canadians," Ms. Queen said. "With continuous improvements to the way that we do business – such as increased automation, improved online services, and a nationally managed workload distribution – Service Canada will be able to manage service demands in a more cost-effective and efficient way."