Report highlights busy signals, long waits for EI service; hints at new spending

Panel calls for changes to EI services

OTTAWA — About two-thirds of people who call the federal government for help with their employment insurance claims get turned away by a busy message, while the rest face long periods on hold before they speak to an agent, says a new report.

It can take more than a month for applicants to find out if they qualify for benefits, said the report — compiled by a panel of three Liberal MPs tasked with finding ways to improve how the government delivers employment insurance services.

In a report released Wednesday, the panel is urging the government to focus its attention on Canadians who have questions or concerns about their EI claims, rather than simply pouring more money into the system.

That would mean tasking Service Canada to concentrate on the toughest of EI cases — ones where the square peg doesn’t fit in the square hole, as panel member Rodger Cuzner puts it — to prevent the lengthy delays that often ensue.

“When I was first elected in 2000, it was probably most common if a file was sort of protracted … three weeks and then there would be a resolution,” said Cuzner, the parliamentary secretary to Labour Minister Patty Hajdu. 

“We’re seeing now those files (take) five weeks easy; six weeks, eight weeks is not uncommon. So it’s the ones that require the hands-on assessment and processing, those are the ones that we need to address.”

The Liberals’ first budget promised $92 million to improve processing and call centre services. The panel hinted Wednesday that the federal budget would include extra resources to help front-line workers and businesses that find it difficult to submit employment records needed before a claim is approved.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that our report is being tabled before the budget,” said Winnipeg MP Terry Duguid.

“We think we’ve made a strong case for investment because Canadians are demanding service, (and) our employees need these kinds of investments in order to do their jobs.”

The panel is also calling for a review of the appeals system and the social security tribunal, which adjudicates disputes between Canadians and the department responsible for the EI system.

The federal government handles over 2.8 million employment insurance applications annually and doles out $14 billion to eligible Canadians with Service Canada being the main point of contact for those who have questions.

In its report, the three-member panel wrote that Service Canada at some level “has lost sight of the citizen,” but also noted that Canadians overall were happy with the services they received once they were able to speak with an agent.

The panel cautioned that the government doesn’t need to put too much money into the system, instead focusing cash where it is needed most, including on updating Service Canada’s decades-old technology.

Duguid said the government should be careful with any changes before proceeding — a reference to the cautionary tale of the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system, which has thrown a costly wrench in the federal payroll works.

Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada union, said the government must invest in more front-line workers and not rely on technology improvements alone.

“This report, interestingly enough, keeps talking about a citizen-centric approach,” Benson said. “To me, if you’re going to have a citizen-centric approach, you’re going to have (to have) enough staff.”

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

Canadian Press