EI helpline: Sorry they can’t come to the phone right now

WATCH: Employment Insurance is supposed to ease some of the financial burden of losing a job. But even getting through to the helpline can be a problem. Vassy Kapelos explains.

OTTAWA – “Our call volume is high and we are unable to transfer your call” – that’s the message a growing number of Canadians are getting from the government when they ring phone centres looking for help with Employment Insurance.

Thirty per cent of callers to Service Canada’s EI help centres received that message last year, according to government numbers filed with the House of Commons in January.

That’s compared to just eight per cent of calls sidelined by high-volume messages back in 2006, even though the number of calls hasn’t changed.

The trend is also evident in the service levels achieved at the call centres. The goal is to answer 80 per cent of calls within three minutes.  In reality, just 32 per cent of calls were answered within that time frame during 2012-2013, according to the documents. 

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Similar numbers filed for Service Canada’s Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan numbers show 64 per cent are answered in three minutes and eight per cent get a high-volume messages

The numbers coincide with cuts to “citizen-centred services” at Employment and Social Development Canada. Funding dropped 36 per cent from $521 million to $330 million from 2010 to 2013. The number of employees also fell from 5,484 to 3,087 during that time frame.

The budget it set to drop again to $273 million by 2016-2017, according to the government’s most recent planning documents

Mother-to-be Heather Lee, who is six-months pregnant, was sidelined by that message this winter when she called to inquire about how to apply for maternity leave.

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The Ottawa-area woman spent a week trying to get through to someone on the 1-800 number in the hopes of getting her maternity leave questions answered.

Her continual efforts were rewarded once, when she got through, but was put on hold for 40 minutes before she had to hang up and go to work.

“You spend all this time paying into a system that you can’t have access to when you need it the most,” she said. “I’m having my first child so it’s kind of a crucial time.”

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Frustrated with the phone lines, Lee went into a physical Service Canada location, where her questions were answered in 20 minutes.

“All my coworkers had issues … they all said, ‘You have to go in because you are never going to be able to get through,’” she said.

Budget cuts to blame: NDP

The NDP blames the wait times on changes to EI coupled with budget cuts.

“We want people to transition from unemployment to employment and yet the system isn’t set up to make that transition happen smoothly,” said NDP MP Robert Chisholm.

Chisholm, who hails from Nova Scotia, said he’s heard from constituents who stay on the phone for hours, afraid they’ll never get through if they hang up.

“The staffing levels in those offices need to be sufficient in order to handle the increased volume,” Chisholm said.

The solution isn’t that simple, says Scott Armstrong, a Conservative MP and the parliamentary secretary for Employment and Social Development.

Armstrong is spearheading a review of the call centres and says the main issues are peak periods of unemployment and the fact that people cannot check their status online.

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“It’s not as easy as just employing a bunch of people, ramping up resources,” he said. “The solution is, one, increase the speed at which EI claims are processed, and, two, trying to make sure we relieve the pressure on those call centres by reducing the amount of people who are just calling to find out the status of their claim.”

Armstrong said the department has already made improvements, including adding more resources during peak times, making the all agents available nationally, and attempting to solve all issues during one phone call.

Another important upcoming change will be the option to view the status of a claim online. Currently, applicants have to call in to check.

“This is something the department is taking very seriously. I’ve actually been in the call centres. I’ve listened in on the calls. I’ve seen some of the changes they made. There’s a lot of work still to do but we are moving in the right direction,” Armstrong said, adding that he hopes to finish his review and make recommendations to the government by the end of April.

In the meantime, the frustration means more people are turning to their MPs for help.

Chisholm said he has seen an increase in the number of constituents coming for help with EI.

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“We go through the back door and find out what is going on in somebody’s file,” Chisholm said. “I apologize to my constituents when that happens, because they are the taxpayer. They are the people that should be able to get dealt with. They shouldn’t have to come to me and get moved up the line. The process is in desperate need of a fix.”

With a file from Laura Stone

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