Charito Humphreys is a Regina-based business expertise adviser who teaches, monitors and assists the call centre agents who process Employment Insurance applications.
It’s a job that can be taxing, she said. “People are unhappy and they are yelling. You’re following the legislation, but they think it’s you making the rules.”
The system aims to make a decision on EI applications within 28 days, although it may take longer if clarification is needed or documents are missing. But a current backlog means it’s hard to hit that target, and a public service strike that has been ongoing since April 19 means it may take even longer.
“We are doing the best we can to deal with the oldest claims. But we already had a backlog before the strike. It’s likely people will be waiting longer,” said Humphreys, who is on the bargaining committee for the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU).
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EI is among the essential services that will be maintained during a strike, Treasury Board said last week as public service workers headed into a strike.
However, in-person services at Service Canada Centres are limited to clients requiring assistance with Employment Insurance, Social Insurance Numbers, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement. Offices remain open, but the days and hours of operation may vary.
“While we expect there may be some delays in processing and increased wait times in call centres, Service Canada is working to meet service standards and answer client enquiries and calls in a timely manner.” said Treasury Board.
About 80 per cent of the agents who handle EI applications have been deemed essential, according to CEIU. But even before the strike, the system had a backlog that was “out of control,” said Crystal Warner, national executive vice-president of CEIU, which represents about 35,670 workers at Employment and Social Development Canada, Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Canada, and the Immigration and Refugee Board.
As of the end of January, there were 176,016 new EI applications, said Warner. The sustainable level is 80,000 to 85,000. Over 90 per cent of the new applications were past the target timeframes.
At this point, most complex claims are at least 30 days overdue. Anyone with a complex claim is already waiting two months or more, she said.
Wait times may also increase for new applications for some other benefits. The Canada Pension Plan has been meeting or exceeding service levels, said Warner. But if there is a protracted strike, she expects delays in processing new applications.
Those who are most likely to find themselves stuck in the EI backlog are those who have been denied a claim and are awaiting a reassessment, said Phil Matheson, a payment services officer based in North Bay and a CEIU national vice-president for the Ontario region.
Applicants who quit their jobs or were fired require adjudication by a “Level 2 agent.” There are already not enough of these, and the system is far behind, said Matheson. “If you quit or are fired, you will wait even longer.”
There may also be delays for applicants moving from one kind of benefit to another, said Humphreys. The agents handle applications for a number of other benefits, including maternity and paternity benefits, compassionate care benefits for those who are proving end-of-life care and family caregiver benefits for those who are caring for a sick family member.
Switching between one kind of benefit and another is not automated and requires an agent to make a manual change, said Humphreys.
The majority of EI recipients get their payments through direct deposit. For those who are already in the system, it’s automatic. Payments are usually in the recipient’s account two days after the report has been completed, said Humphreys.
For the minority of people who get cheques, it depends on the postal system — typically it takes between four and 10 days.
“We’re not going to stop printing cheques,” said Matheson.
Working in a call centre can be stressful and the union is aiming for a new contract that will help to alleviate some of that, said Humphreys.
“We are dealing with people who are struggling when they call. Our call centre workers are receiving a lot of verbal abuse. It’s extremely taxing on your mental health.”
Call centre workers automatically receive the next call in the queue as soon as a call is completed. The next could be a woman calling to cancel her maternity benefits because her baby had died, or someone who is caring for a terminally-ill parent, said Humphreys. It could be someone who is already upset because they have been waiting for an hour and a half.
“It takes its toll when you take call after call after call. We’re not robots,” she said.
The union has proposed introducing “micro breaks” between calls. The initial proposal on the table was for a 40-second break, which could be automated, she said. The union also wants flexibility in terms of whether agents work from home, in an office or a combination of the two.
Call centre agents have worked hard over the pandemic, including assisting with rolling out the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), said Humphreys.
“Our members have shown up day in and day out to deliver services that have never been delivered before. We could go to work at 8 a.m. and discover that a program has been changed by noon. Now we’re asking for fair wages and remote work,” she said.
“We kept money in people’s hands so they can pay their mortgage or their rent and buy food. Those were scary times. We were proud of the work we did. Now, it feels like disrespect.”
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