The federal government is abandoning its practice of paying employment-insurance processors to work extra hours in December to handle an anticipated increase in claims and to ensure that jobless Canadians get their money before Christmas, the union that represents Service Canada employees says.
The reduction in overtime comes after 18,600 Canadians were thrown out of work last month and another 54,000 lost their jobs in October – the first back-to-back increases in the number of unemployed recorded since the recession of 2008 and 2009.
"Service Canada has allowed for EI processing agents to work overtime each and every year in the weeks leading up to the holiday season so that more families of the unemployed could have a somewhat festive season despite their circumstances," said Steve McCuaig, the national executive vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union.
However, Mr. McCuaig said, "the word was officially given that there would be no overtime this year" and Service Canada employees say they have been told the same thing.
Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who is responsible for Service Canada, said in an e-mail that overtime has not been "completely cancelled."
The number of claims for EI benefits normally takes a large jump between November and January with the increase peaking in December. Last year, for instance, there were 264,220 claims filed in the final month of the year, compared to 153,450 filed in September.
Meanwhile, reduced staffing levels at Service Canada have already created extended delays for EI applicants whose claims cannot be processed electronically. That occurs if there is anything problematic on an application like an extraneous hyphen in a name that was not replicated on supporting documentation.
The target time set by the government for getting the first EI cheque to a client is 28 days. Ms. Finley says her department is actually averaging 23 days for the speed of first payment.
But Rodger Cuzner, the Liberal human resources critic, said he believes the government's statistics are skewed.
If an application is rejected after 28 days because information does not add up, and the applicant then files a new claim, the clock is reset, Mr. Cuzner said. Which means people listed as having received their cheque within three weeks would have actually been waiting much longer.
The Human Resources department refused to comment on whether that is the case.
Mr. Cuzner also said he has been told by middle managers at Service Canada that senior executives receive bonuses based on the percentage of claims that are processed within the 28-day period. So the processing agents are being told to channel their efforts to the easy claims "where the square pegs are in the square holes," he said, and the problematic applications are set aside creating further delays.
Ms. Queen said in her e-mail that there are no bonuses "being tied to that specific [28-day]target."
The department does acknowledge that hundreds of temporary employees at the processing centres have been let go.
Mr. Cuzner said the number of people calling his office because their EI benefits have been delayed is climbing. One constituent, he said, was told by Service Canada that his application could not be reviewed for another two weeks and "they are suggesting that he check out community services" to apply for welfare.