As the battle gets even tougher for out-of-work Canadians trying to get Employment Insurance, there are new accusations that planned closures of Service Canada processing centres will benefit Conservative ridings, while harming opposition ridings, especially in Atlantic Canada.

Over the next three years, Human Resources and Development Canada plans to cut the number of offices that process EI claims from 120 nationwide down to about 20.

Of the 20 processing centres left, more than half will be in Conservative ridings and only one will be in a Liberal riding.

Inside Canada's EI system

CBC national reporter Louise Elliott takes a closer look at the battered EI system.

The government argues that an ongoing process of automation will eliminate the need for so many workers in so many locations. That's despite a current months-long backlog of more than 80,000 claims that have waited longer than the four-week limit, part of which has been blamed on flawed automation.

About a third of people with EI claims now pending have been waiting more than a month for cheques, and many more than two months.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said there is always a surge in applications in December and January, and this year the spike was higher than usual. Her office said the department has added 400 employees in recent weeks and shifted 120 people from part-time to full-time to deal with the backlog.

"We do monitor it closely and that's why we have added extra resources," Finley said in an interview. "We're continuing to do that this month to make sure those cheques get out faster."

More Saturday on The House

Listen to The House on CBC Radio One Saturday at 9 a.m. for more on the changes to Service Canada and Employment Insurance delays.

The union representing the Human Resources workers said they will barely scratch the surface given the current backlog and how long the system has been short-staffed.

Opposition MPs and the union said the plan to close 100 offices will benefit mainly Conservative ridings in a classic case of pork-barrelling.

In Nova Scotia, several processing centres including Sydney and Glace Bay in Cape Breton — both in a Liberal riding where unemployment is high — are closing.

But two sub-processing centres are being kept open — one in Defence Minister Peter MacKay's riding of Central Nova, the other in Conservative Gerald Keddy's riding of South Shore-St. Margaret's.

In Newfoundland, seven Service Canada offices, including Gander and Corner Brook, will stop processing EI claims despite high unemployment rates in those communities.

Most of the work will be relocated to St. John's, where the economy is booming. But the one riding with a Conservative MP —Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Peter Penashue — will continue to have a processing centre.

Penashue said this week he did not interfere in the decision-making process to keep the 12 jobs in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but did get in touch with HRDC officials after hearing from constituents.

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Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the decisions about which processing centres to leave open have nothing to do with pork-barrelling. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"The response was their positions will remain in Goose Bay and that it didn't make sense to consolidate Goose Bay operations into Halifax or St. John's and particularly when Labrador is on the mainland and it's a different region."

That argument certainly didn't help Cape Breton or the entire province of P.E.I. — where the one processing centre is located in the town of Montague, in the Liberal riding of Cardigan.

Liberal MP Roger Cuzner said it's obvious the Conservatives are punishing ridings where they didn't get votes.

"There is a cynic in me when I see Glace Bay and Sydney and Gander — Liberal ridings — jobs moving out of those," he said. "I guess I would be naive to think there [isn't] a little bit more to this than trying to find efficiencies in the system."

Deborah Gray, national vice-president with the Canada Employment and Immigration Union in New Brunswick, agrees.

"I think there's a lot of political decisions being made. We suspect, we can't prove — how do you prove something like that?"

She pointed to the closure of coast guard services based in Newfoundland as another example of partisan motives behind policy decisions, and added the impact will be devastating to rural Canada.

Other pockets of the country will see jobs moving from opposition ridings to Conservative ones as well:

  • In Quebec at least three processing centres in NDP ridings (Sept-Îles, Rimouski and New Richmond) are seeing their jobs transferred to the riding of Megantic L'Erable — which belongs to Industry Minister Christian Paradis.
  • And, several EI processing centres that will remain standing in Quebec are located in ridings that up until last May were also Conservative: for example in Quebec City and the Saguenay.
  • In Ontario, the Kingston processing centre in a staunchly Liberal riding is closing. That's despite the fact it had seen an infusion of resources in recent years to make it the central processing centre for mail from the northeast region of Ontario. Under the centralization plan, those mail processing services will now be shut down and moved to the Conservative riding held by MP Jay Aspen in North Bay.

Finley said the decisions around which offices to leave open have nothing to do with pork-barrelling.

"What we did was we took a look at where does it makes sense to have these locations," she said. "We have to look at things like do we have a 20-year lease somewhere? We had to look at what's the cost of real estate. We had to look at what's the availability of people to do the kind of work that needs to be done. There's a very economic analysis done to determine where the locations are."

Cuzner disagrees, arguing it makes more economic sense to preserve services in ridings with high unemployment.

"Places like Gander ... the EI rate is 18.5, Glace Bay it's over 16 per cent, some of these communities throughout Quebec and New Brunswick, EI rates are fairly high," he said. "But they're going to maintain operations in Edmonton where the EI rate is 6.5 percent, Halifax where it's seven per cent.

"When you're processing EI in Toronto and you have a workforce there, the turnover rate is fairly high," Cuzner said. "It costs about $12,000 per employee to train up an employee ... And we know in these other [rural] communities if you get a job at Service Canada you turn it into a career, the turnover is negligible."

Gray said the centralization plan is deeply flawed because there will be no specialized services left in the regions.

"Well it comes to understanding your client. You know, over the last five years there was a time when all the claims were processed in the area. You understood your clientele. You knew the employers, you knew what mistakes they made, you knew how to get a hold of them," she said. "None of that is prevalent anymore. All that is lost. "

She adds that the person who will suffer is the one who needs help filling out the forms.

"To a fisherman in the north shore, that's probably got a Grade 6 education, that application is problematic."