Wait times on B.C.'s welfare phone line soar to almost one hour
Anti-poverty activists say people receiving social assistance are living their lives on hold
B.C.'s welfare recipients are increasingly living their lives on hold, according to data which shows the average phone wait time for social assistance has jumped to nearly an hour.
Documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act show wait times for the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation's automated telephone inquiry line shot up to nearly 58 minutes last August and averaged 53 minutes the following month.
"That's incredible," said Trish Garner, an organizer with B.C. Poverty Reduction.
"It's really shocking. The reality of living at these deeply inadequate levels of income is really about waiting: waiting in line for food, for shelter, and now about waiting in line for a government service that should be there for people."
Wait times had already tripled
Wait times were initially flagged as an issue last year, when statistics revealed the average wait time for the ministry's phone line tripled in 2014 from nine minutes to 34.
The latest figures came after an FOI request from B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
Garner says many people on social assistance don't have cell phones and are forced to use public phones at community agencies which may have time limits and wait lines of their own.
And those who do have cell phones often have pay-as-you-go plans.
Fraser Stuart, a Downtown Eastside resident and volunteer with the Carnegie Community Action Project, says the climbing wait times are part of a much larger issue in terms of accessing services.
"And it's the only way that you can get through to the welfare office; you can't go there anymore, you have to call in," he said.
"There's outrage and frustration. They're making the system so hard that people get frustrated and they give up."
Garner says allowing the wait times to build effectively tells welfare recipients their time isn't valuable.
Ministry strives for less than 10 minutes
The ministry says the call centre receives 130,000 calls a month and wait times have increased in part because of inquiries about changes which support people on assistance.
In an emailed statement, a ministry spokesperson said 70 per cent of customers are now choosing a call back option which won't use up their cell phone minutes: "Telephone service has become popular with the people we serve."
The call centre is also in the process of hiring 40 more people, which will increase staff on the toll free line by 27 per cent.
The ministry says it strives to have wait lines which are less than 10 minutes.