New jobs at EI centres not about helping the public service but saving face, says union

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People waiting for employment insurance (EI) benefits may get their questions answered sooner than before, as the federal government has promised to add around 400 new public servants in order to deal with a high number of complaints.

On Tuesday, Minister of Employment Jason Kenney confirmed to The Globe and Mail plans to bolster Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) with more staff as nearly 10,000 Canadians complained about poor service, unanswered phone calls and long waiting times for EI inquiries.

The same day Kenney made his statement, NDP MP Nycole Turmel noted in question period that processing delays have increased by 54 per cent since 2006 and the number of complaints have spiked by 40 per cent this year alone.

The government has cut the number of EI processing centres from 120 to 19 across the country, according to the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). Around 30 per cent of callers to EI report being unable to reach a representative for help with their benefits claims, reporting instead that they recieve nothing but automated messages.

It's expected that the government will cut 6,600 jobs from Employment and Social Development Canada by 2017.

The news that 400 new jobs will be added to ESDC could signal a small reversal on cuts to the public service, but Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU) President Steven McCuaig isn't buying it.

"I'm very skeptical about this," he said in an interview. "I don't believe a word the minister is saying."

McCuaig said it's normal for EI to get high caller traffic inquiring about benefits around the holidays when expenses tend to go up. It's also normal for ESDC to place staff members from other offices in call centres, which McCuaig calls "a toxic environment."

"There's lots of turn-over in call centres," he said. "Some people don't work well in call centres."

He added that a high turn-over rate means that workers are often being replaced, but doesn't always mean that there is a growth in staff. "[The government] may put pockets of people [in call-centres] just to look good," McCuaig said. "Every year, it's the same thing."

Normally, workers from the integrity branch of ESDC are temporarily reassigned to receive phone calls from EI users. The integrity branch is the department that handles overpayments and calculation errors. According to McCuaig, it is the money-making mechanism of ESDC.

"If EI gives you your benefits and see if a miscalculation was made. They conduct an audit and say 'you owe Canadian taxpayers $5,000,'" explained McCuaig.

When workers who normally work at the integrity office go to call centres, new people with little experience in that office will need to deal with fraud cases, which could result in even more mistakes, he added.

In 2013, Auditor General Michael Ferguson urged the government to crack down on EI overpayments as the government loses $300 million a year due to miscalculation and backlogs.

The government has consistently cut front-line workers at ESDC, McCuaig said. Senior level managers, on the other hand, have yet to be laid off, something that McCuaig calls "disgusting."

While the addition of new staff members at ESDC may be business as usual, it's possible that the Harper government may be trying to win back public servants in time for the federal election in 2015.

"They're gearing up for an election," McCuaig said. "But this is a small effort to shore things up so more people get their EI benefits."

Francella Fiallos is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. She sits on the Board of Directors for OPIRG-Carleton, edits a campus newspaper, and hosts a radio show on CKCU 93.1 FM in the capital region. 

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