‘Countless’ complaints on CRA wait times are spurring a new probe

Click to play video: 'CRA says 20 employees fired for claiming COVID-19 benefits while working'
CRA says 20 employees fired for claiming COVID-19 benefits while working
The Canada Revenue Agency says 20 employees have been terminated after an internal review found they claimed COVID-19 benefits while still working at the tax authority – Jul 1, 2023

Canada’s Auditor General Karen Hogan says the office will look — again — into wait times and responses at Canada Revenue Agency call centres after a highly critical report by one of her predecessors slammed the wait times on the matter in 2017.

As first reported by The Globe and Mail, Conservative MP Adam Chambers wrote Hogan last month inquiring about the possibility of a follow-up due to complaints from “countless” constituents, parliamentarians and small businesses about long Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) call centre wait times, blocked calls and confusing advice.

In his letter to Hogan, Chambers wrote that the budget for CRA call centres has increased by $330 million between 2015-16 and 2022-23, plus an additional 4,600 employees have been hired for the department.

“In total, the Government has spent $1.1 billion in additional taxpayers’ money over the past seven years (above 2015-16 levels) to ‘improve’ call centre performance,” Chambers wrote.

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“With such increases, one would expect a significant improvement in services to Canadians. While call volume to CRA has remained relatively stable across the various lines of businesses identified, CRA’s own data indicates that call wait times have increased dramatically since 2015-16. For example, in 2023-24 (to date) the wait time for CRA’s main lines for Canadians and businesses is over 22 minutes — the highest in years.”

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Police warn of CRA phishing scams

Chambers provided Global News with copies of his correspondence with Hogan and her reply letter. He also included the response to a written question for the National Revenue Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s office on funding, employee count and call volume, among other metrics.

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According to the response, CRA call centre budgets peaked in the 2022-23 fiscal year at $481 million, with 7,319 full-time equivalent employees.

Both amounts declined this fiscal year, with a $368-million budget and 5,610 full-time equivalent employees. The CRA says this budget is now $418 million through a combination their new collective bargaining agreement and reallocated funds for call centres ahead of the 2024 tax season.

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Back in 2015-16, the annual CRA call centre budget was $149 million, with 2,651 full-time equivalent employees.

In this same time period, the amount of calls coming into the CRA’s main call centre for individual and business tax inquiries has remained fairly stable, at 15 million in 2015-16 and 14 million in 2022-23. From April 1 to Aug. 25 this year, the call centres took over five million inquiries.

The average wait time to speak with an agent in 2015-16 was one minute and seven seconds. So far this year, the average wait time is over 22 minutes, according to the written response to Chambers’ question.

In response, the CRA says their current data as of September has the average wait time pegged at 19 minutes, and say their major call centres are currently averaging five minutes.

They add that over the past two years calls increased by about 40 per cent due to inquires about COVID-19 benefits.

On issue of calls being blocked, the CRA said it was a side-effect of their previous target to ensure 80 per cent of call reached a human within two minutes, otherwise they would receive a busy signal.

The agency says they modified their program to ensure more calls got through, which necessitated an increase in wait times and a modified target of answering 65 per cent of calls within 15 minutes. With the added funding, the CRA says they surpassed this goal, with 71 per cent of calls reaching a person within 15 minutes.

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In his annual report, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson François Boileau says that CRA-related complaints are growing more frequent and complex than they were pre-pandemic. In the 2019 fiscal year, the office logged 1,500 complaints. These levels increased significantly for the next two years with over 3,000, but still remain higher than normal with more than 2,100 complaints last year.

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