Canada chops employment insurance staff, leaving jobless in the lurch
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun Jan 29 2012. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
Layoffs seldom come as a surprise. Workers know when a plant is losing business; when an employer is driven to cut costs; when a government is poised to slash its payroll.
When the axe finally falls, they’ve lived through months of debilitating anxiety. They need to be able to count on their employment insurance (EI) benefits.
Today, they can’t. An applicant who provides all the information required by Service Canada is supposed to get his or her first benefit payment within 28 days. But thousands of laid-off workers say they’ve been waiting months.
It’s impossible to get though to Service Canada; the phone lines are jammed. It takes hours to get an appointment with a claims officer when they go to the office in person. And when their turn finally comes, they’re often told their claim is “spooling” or “churning” in the computer and won’t be retrievable for three weeks.
Those whose layoff deviates in any way from the norm have to wait until an experienced claims evaluator — not a short-term contract employee — is available to review their application.
It is important to remember this isn’t government money. Service Canada is merely acting as the delivery agent for money entrusted to Ottawa’s care by employers and workers. These contributors have a right to the benefits for which they paid.
Why is the federal agency failing to keep its part of the bargain?
Here is Human Resources Minister Diane Finley’s answer: “Service Canada continues to carefully monitor EI processing to ensure the best possible service is provided to Canadians who are in need of benefits. We all take this matter seriously.”
Her actions don’t suggest that.
Over the course of 2011, she cut Service Canada’s EI staff by 1,000. Last October, when claims spiked, she did nothing. In November, when opposition MPs raised the alarm in the House of Commons, she did nothing. In December, when claimants at a handful of Service Canada offices resorted to violence, she did nothing.
Finally, this month, the minister brought in 165 temporary workers to process EI claims, reassigned 214 Service Canada employees from other duties and boosted the hours of 120 claims processors.
This is just the latest chapter in a long saga.
Six years ago, the department of Human Resources created Service Canada “to provide easy access to program and services.” It now handles everything from passport applications to EI claims.
The following year, the department moved from a paper system of filing and processing EI claims to an automated one to cut its staff. That means users had to fill out an online application form, either at home or at a Service Canada outlet.
This was fine for computer-adept clients with uncomplicated EI claims. But immigrants, older workers and applicants with a non-standard layoff (one complicated by an injury, a death in the family, illness or any other irregularity) struggled. Applicants who happened to make a mistake on their online claim were stuck in limbo until the computer spat it out unprocessed.
Until recently, Service Canada had enough workers to process their claims manually. Now the agency is operating at capacity when claims are coming in at an average rate. When they surge, a backlog quickly develops and applicants have to wait longer with no income.
For some that means serious financial hardship. For others it means draining their bank account to make up for Ottawa’s inability to full its commitment.
Finley’s short-term measures should ease the immediate crunch. But another spike will soon come along — many more, in fact, as governments and private employers carry out their plans to cut loose thousands of workers this year.
The government may not like EI. (“We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it,” Finley declared in 2009.)
But it has a responsibility to do its job fairly.
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