Monday, June 9, 2014

Has Service Canada work to rule affected my claim for CPP Disability Benefits?

Minister accuses EI union of working to rule

The number of jobless Canadians who managed to connect with an agent when they called Service Canada looking for their employment insurance cheques reached its lowest level in six years this fall.

Service Canada employees say the decline in staff size is the cause of the jammed phone lines – and the problems that many unemployed people are having in getting their benefits applications processed.

The number of jobless Canadians who managed to connect with an agent when they called Service Canada looking for their employment insurance cheques reached its lowest level in six years this fall.
Service Canada employees say the decline in staff size is the cause of the jammed phone lines – and the problems that many unemployed people are having in getting their benefits applications processed.

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But Human Resources Minister Diane Finley suggests the workers in her agency are deliberately cutting back on service as part of a backlash against the changes being made by the Conservative government to automate the EI process.

In a letter to the Charlottetown Guardian dated Nov. 21, Ms. Finley says it is most interesting that “in the month that we announced we will be overhauling and improving EI processing to better serve Canadians – before any changes were introduced – productivity and performance went from being on par with last year's performance at this time, to the worst in five years.”

More than 1,000 processing agents have been let go since the spring. Ms. Finley says they were temporary employees hired specifically to deal with a balloon in EI claims during the recent recession.

But the Canada Employment and Immigration Union says the number of processing agents is now well below prerecession levels. And the union is furious that Ms. Finley would suggest there is a work-to-rule campaign going on.
“If service levels are the worst that they’ve been in five years, I can assure you, it is entirely because Service Canada was far too quick to cut positions on the premise that automation would compensate,” said Steve McCuaig, the union’s national executive vice-president.

Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Ms. Finley, said the Human Resources Department is engaged in a process of modernizing its systems that will ultimately allow for better, faster and more cost-effective service to Canadians.
But Mr. McCuaig said “there isn’t an automated system in the world that can process applications that are as complex as EI legislation is and as unique to the applicants and their circumstances.”

Meanwhile, statistics supplied by Ms. Finley to Rodger Cuzner, the Liberal human resources critics, show the decline in service at the department’s call centres has been going on for at least six years.

In 2005-06, 58 per cent of the calls about EI from across Canada actually made it through to an agent. By September of this year, that had dropped to 32 per cent.

And, in some regions, the drop was much more pronounced. In Edmonton, for instance, the successful calls fell from 91 per cent to 31 per cent over the six-year span. In Regina, they fell from 84 per cent to 26 per cent.
The department denies that it has failed to renew the contracts of temporary employees in the Service Canada call centres.

“Through normal attrition, 84 people have left the call centres since July of this year and we have not replaced those positions,” Ms. Queen said. “However, for the record, there have been no non-renewals of term contracts or terminations within the EI or [Canada Pension Plan]call centres as a result of financial pressures.”

The union representatives, however, says that is patently untrue and that hundreds of temporary call centre employees across the country have been told they are no longer needed. They point to grievances that have been filed by their members who were let go in September, and memos from managers telling employees that staff is being reduced as a result of monetary cutbacks.


NDP blasts dismal response rate as Tories cut EI call centres

With the Conservative government planning to downsize call centres that handle employment insurance claims, the New Democrats have obtained data to show that one in every four calls is being abandoned because callers can’t reach a representative.
Internal government documents released by the NDP at an Ottawa news conference Wednesday show that in larger cities like Winnipeg and Vancouver, nearly a third of the people who called Service Canada about EI last month eventually hung up because they could not speak to someone in a timely manner.

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And in the final week of September, more than half of the people who called about the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security reached nothing but a busy signal.

“Folks on the other end of the line who depend on the service couldn’t even get through nearly 25 per cent of the time,” human resources critic Jean Crowder said. “So one out of every four people who call can’t talk to anyone about the problem they are having.”

Service Canada employees have received e-mails telling them that call centres in Vancouver, Montague, PEI, and the Nova Scotia communities of Glace Bay and Sydney will be reduced in size over the next three years.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has explained that the government hired extra employees on a temporary basis during the recession to handle the high volume of EI claims.

“Fortunately, thanks to our economic action plan, more Canadians are at work now than ever before, so there is not the same need to hire people to process the claims,” the minister said last month when asked about the downsizing at the call centres.

“The individuals knew that they were temporary jobs, but service standards have improved compared to the 10 weeks it took when the Liberals were in power,” Ms. Finley said.

She has also said Service Canada is moving away from a paper system to automated processes that will give workers more time to deal directly with the people they serve.

But Ms. Crowder said the automated system has been in place for five years and most people already try to file their claims on line.

“Less than 50 per cent of claims can be handled without an employee involved,” she said. “Even a tiny anomaly in a claim will be rejected by the automated system.”

Unemployed workers who need help but cannot get help by telephone will have to wait longer for the money they need to pay their bills, Ms. Crowder said.
The government, she added, “should reverse the decision to cut the staff at EI processing centres so Canadians are not left waiting for the benefits they deserve and need in these tough economic times.”


EI queue has ballooned since Service Canada staff cuts

Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Canadians are waiting for the federal government to process their claims for employment insurance – a queue that newly released documents show has doubled since 2007 as Services Canada reduces its staff.

In October of 2007, there were 181,931 people waiting for their claims to be processed, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail using federal Access to Information legislation. By October of this year, that number had climbed to 360,481 – and according to past seasonal trends, is likely to be higher now.

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Growth in the waiting list for benefits parallels a decline in temporary and permanent staff in the processing centres, with numbers 13 per cent lower than in October, 2007. Hundreds of additional processing agents were hired during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 but those people, and others, have since been let go or left without being replaced.

The result has been a system in turmoil, as documented in a series of Globe stories over the past two months. Unemployed people are unable to get through by telephone to find out what is delaying their benefits. The newly released documents reveal wild fluctuations in temporary staff at Service Canada’s call centres where the phone lines as so jammed that just one in three calls is answered.

Many of the unemployed are turning up at Service Canada centres instead and are extremely frustrated. Service Canada workers in a number of cities are reporting receiving threats of violence.

One woman who waited for months for an answer is Lorena Delim, a health-care aide who went on maternity leave a year ago when her son was born. The baby died in August – a tragedy Ms. Delim cannot bring herself to discuss even four months later.

She immediately told Service Canada that the boy had passed away. Because of her fragile emotional state, she was advised to convert some of the remaining months of her maternity leave to disability leave.
Weeks later, she had received no cheque for the period after the baby’s death but she did get a letter from Service Canada telling her she had to pay back more than $500 in benefits.

Ms. Delim tried repeatedly to telephone a government agent to set things straight but could not get past the message machines. More than once she went into the local Service Canada centre in an attempt to resolve the issue. “They e-mailed for the processing centre to call me back but I never heard from them again,” she said in a telephone interview.

Ms. Delim eventually turned to Winnipeg’s Unemployed Help Centre to see if the staff there could get through to Service Canada on her behalf. In the week before Christmas – three weeks after she had returned to her job – she was finally told she would be getting benefits for September and October.
Although the number of people who, like Ms. Delim, are waiting has spiked in 2011, the 248,659 EI claims filed in October were about the same as in Octobers past, the documents obtained by The Globe show.

The documents did not give figures for November and December of 2011. But the records show that the number of Canadians waiting for their first benefits cheque annually jumps by as much as 100,000 during those months as a result of seasonal fluctuations. So the real number of unemployed Canadians currently waiting for their first EI payment could be approaching 500,000.

In response to questions from The Globe, the Human Resources Department said it works to “maintain a flexible and sustainable workforce capacity comprising both permanent and temporary employees, working on a full- or part-time basis.”

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says fewer people are needed because her department is moving to a more automated system.
But Service Canada workers point out that the system became automated four years ago. And they say the depletion of their ranks means any claim that requires human intervention is taking additional weeks and even months to process.

“I liken this to a ticking time bomb,” says Neil Cohen, the executive director of the Community Unemployed Help Centre in Winnipeg.
“We have clients who are dealing with depression issues who have talked about suicide and those threats have to be taken seriously [as do]threats of violence against Service Canada workers,” Mr. Cohen said. “The federal government has just ignored the problem.”


Service Canada employees told to keep mum on complaints office

There is an office within Service Canada where jobless people who have waited undue lengths of time for their first employment-insurance cheque can complain about the delay – but Service Canada employees are not permitted to tell them about it.
It’s called the Office of Client Satisfaction, and it promises to work to “resolve any issues brought to its attention.” But call centre agents who field questions about EI claims say they have been warned by their bosses not to mention its existence to the frustrated people on the other end of the line.

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“The only way they are allowed to give information about it is if the client specifically says, ‘Do you have information about the Office of Client Satisfaction,’ ” said Steve McCuaig, the national vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union. “So how are they supposed to ask for something they don’t even know exists?”

It’s a bind that the agents find themselves in more often as the work force assigned to process claims shrinks to meet federal budget restraints, and the number of EI claims that take more than the maximum 28 days to be decided increases correspondingly.

Even though the jobless rate went up last month, Service Canada's work force is expected to decline even further as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada trims costs to meet deficit reduction targets. So the lines at Service Canada which are already jammed with anxious EI claimants are likely to get even busier.

Many of the angry claimants are turning to their local MP for help.
“Why should they have to call an MP when they've got me on the phone?” said one Service Canada call-centre agent. “I tell them we are late, but can’t take their complaint? Crazy. Who wouldn't go nuts at that? We deliver bad news but aren't accountable to it.”

Another agent, however, said there would be little point in directing someone whose benefits have been delayed to the Office of Client Satisfaction because that office can only turn to the same overworked processing agents who are fielding complaints forwarded by the call-centre staff.

Until July, those processing agents were required to return calls to people who had complaints about their claims within two days. That has been increased to five days because the agents could not keep up with the volume of calls. And Service Canada staff say even the five-day deadline is not being met.
The Human Resources Department was asked for basic information about the Office of Client Satisfaction on Tuesday, and to explain why call-centre agents could not divulge its existence to clients – but no responses were provided.
Jamus Dorey of Nova Scotia applied for employment insurance on July 24. His claim was not processed until Sept. 24, and he received his first EI cheque on Sept. 28.
“It went on and on and on,” he said. “I would call almost every second day for the full eight weeks and not one person from Service Canada actually called me back.”

Mr. Dorey found a job in October. But as the single father of a young son, he says he is very glad he had his own savings to get through two months with no income.

Throughout the days and weeks that he was trying to get answers out of Service Canada, no one told him about the Office of Client Satisfaction. It was the staff working for Rodger Cuzner, his Liberal MP who also happens to be the party’s critic for Human Resources, who told him there was an office within Service Canada where he could make a complaint.

Mr. Dorey said he called the Office of Client Satisfaction and was told someone would get back to him in a week. The claim was approved shortly thereafter, but he attributes the resolution to Mr. Cuzner’s intervention.


Calls to EI complaints office skyrocket

The secretive Office for Client Satisfaction where jobless Canadians can launch complaints about the handling of their employment insurance claims is not so secret any more.

New documents released this week by the Conservative government show that the office received 9,488 “comments” between April 1 and Dec. 7 of last year.

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That is a considerable increase from the period between 2007 and 2010 when the office averaged a little more than 3,000 comments a year. The number jumped to about 6,000 in fiscal year 2010-11 – an increase that Service Canada attributes to a higher volume of EI claims.
But, in the current fiscal year that ends on March 31, the office is on track to hear from more than 12,000 Canadians.

The volume of comments ballooned in November when The Globe and Mail published a story quoting Service Canada call-centre agents who said they have been warned by their bosses not to mention the office’s existence to jobless clients who are frustrated with the time it is taking to process their EI claims.
“Since November 2011, the extremely high volumes of client feedback have led to delays in processing some of the more complex files,” say the documents, which were provided in response to questions from Jean Crowder, the NDP human resources critic.

Ms. Crowder said she believes the increase in calls to the Office for Client Satisfaction (OCS) can be attributed to the fact that people are becoming aware of it. “And cuts to services are forcing people into looking for alternatives,” she said.

In response to questions about the recent spike, Service Canada said additional resources have been added to the OCS, and the department’s website “has been updated to encourage clients to direct their request to the appropriate program.”

Service Canada staff say they have been unable to keep up with the workload after hundreds of workers were cut last year.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley recently authorized the temporary rehiring of more than 100 employees who had been laid off from the EI processing centres, as well as the reassignment of workers from other divisions within Service Canada, to deal with a rising mountain of claims.

In October, more than 360,000 people were waiting for their EI benefits to be processed, a backlog that has since grown, and some unemployed people are waiting months for their first cheque.

Frustrated claimants have jammed the phone lines at Service Canada call centres. But many of the agents who deal with those callers say they have been told not to tell them about the Office for Client Satisfaction.

Don Rogers, the national president of the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, which represents call-centre agents and claims processors, said Service Canada workers in some parts of the country are allowed to give out the number for the OCS while workers in other regions are strongly dissuaded from doing so.

“But we have been encouraging folks, if they are not happy with the wait times, that the best thing to do is to register your unhappiness with the Office for Client Satisfaction,” he said. “That’s why it’s there.”

The documents provided to Ms. Crowder also show high levels of absenteeism among Service Canada staff, especially at the processing centres. While the average Canadian worker takes between seven and eight sick days a year, EI processing agents take an average of nearly 12.

Mr. Rogers said his members are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. “You can imagine when it takes a member of the public days to get through [on the telephone]with a query that they may be unhappy when they finally get through and speak with someone,” he said.

Ms. Crowder said she is hearing anecdotally from Service Canada employees about the difficult environment in which they work. “They are hearing people threatening suicide,” she said, “they are hearing threats of violence and all that kind of thing.”


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