Like many Canadians, Marie Ferguson struggled to get her employment insurance after she was laid off last August.

But unlike many Canadians, Ferguson knew what to do about it.

That's because for nearly four years she worked in the Kingston EI processing centre of Service Canada.

It's the branch of the federal Human Resources department that's supposed to help Canadians get their entitlements.

When Ferguson applied for employment insurance herself, she ran in to some of the same frustrations it had been her job to try to fix.

"I knew exactly what had happened and I was able to tell them how I wanted it resolved. I had to put in a dire need request," she says from her home in Westport, Ont.

Changes benefit Conservative ridings

Opposition MPs and the union representing Service Canada employees say opposition ridings will be hardest hit by as EI processing offices close and consolidate in select ridings. Read the story 

"And then they tried to deny me that, saying 'how could I justify it was a dire need?' when I was talking about needing my income because my children were getting ready to go back to school. Providing for my children is a dire need."

After the global economic meltdown in 2008, Service Canada got an infusion of more than 3,000 term workers across Canada.

But over the past year, those terms were allowed to expire. Of the remaining approximately 450 workers, their hours were cut from full-time to part-time, and their overtime was restricted — this while unemployment has continued to tick upwards and EI applications are surging.

In the Kingston office where Marie worked, there are now only four permanent employees doing the work Marie used to do with about 20 others.

"Just prior to our layoff there were several thousand people in the London area that were being laid off as well so not only was the government not looking at the amount (of people) that were being laid off, they were laying people off who could have offset those applications coming in and being processed," Ferguson says.

"For me, I feel that you released me from being an employee by paying me out of one pocket to paying me out of another pocket which doesn't make sense."

For months, people making EI claims have been complaining of a system that's all but broken.

Some people are now waiting more than eight weeks or more for the first cheque to arrive.

The Canada Employment and Immigration Union says nearly a third of claims are now being processed after the 28-day limit promised by Service Canada.

Automated system rejecting applications

And the union says the number of claims now waiting beyond 28 days has ballooned to 80,000.

The automated system that's supposed to streamline the process is booting applications over tiny inconsistencies — for example, a misplaced hyphen.

And people calling the 1-800 number to try to fix the problem often can't get through, or they wait more than five days for a call-back.

That wait can prove to be devastating, Ferguson says.

"There were several cases where you would get letters asking them to please, please look at the file because they're in dire need, their mortgage is foreclosing, people can't pay their rent, the food banks are getting depleted, people are being turned away from food banks because there's no funds there."

'We do have a plan to bring this online but it's a three-year journey. We cannot achieve this overnight.'—Human Resources Minister Diane Finley

The wait time continues to grow.

This week Liberal MP Wayne Easter said that over Christmas, he and other MPs were inundated with calls in Atlantic Canada from people who had waited 10 weeks or more.

"One individual for instance in Kensington, P.E.I., he sat in a bedroom with a shotgun on his arm. And they admitted it was due to the stress of waiting for EI," Easter said.

"(Another) individual, he came into the office, he's got an 11-year-old son an 8-year-old daughter. He's already been nine weeks since he's been laid off and it's four days before Christmas. So he broke down. 'How am I going to explain this to my kids that we can't have Christmas?'"

On top of the cuts to workers' hours and overtime, the government is also embarking on a process of centralization.

Over the next three years, it's going to close the majority of its 120 processing centres and shift services to 20 centralized offices. That process will see another 600 jobs cut from the EI system, the union says.

Deborah Gray is a national vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union in New Brunswick.

She says the average person often struggles to fill out these online forms, and now they will have nobody in their communities to help them.

"You have people that will go in to their Service Canada centres looking for help. That was provided four or five years ago. If they had a problem all they had to do was ask the people up front," she said. "(Now) basically they're sent home and told you know, get a relative to help you. To a fisherman in the north shore that's probably got a Grade 6 education, that application is problematic."

NDP Human Resources critic Jean Crowder says it's not just individuals who are being affected.

"There's a broader consequence in a community when you have a significant number of people whose claims aren't being finalized, which impacts on local businesses," she said. "If you want to talk about economic drivers in a community, people have to have an income to support their local businesses."

In an interview Thursday, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the current delays are due to an unexpectedly sharp spike in claims in December.

And she added her department has added resources to help deal with the backlog.

"We hired extra people, took part-timers and put them on full-time. We brought in resources from other parts of Service Canada to help and of course (added) overtime," she said.

"And we're continuing to do that this month to make sure those cheques get out faster.

Finley's office says they've added 400 employees in recent weeks and shifted 120 people from part-time to full-time, and also reinstated overtime.

Finley also acknowledged the automated system is not yet completely functional.

"We do have a plan to bring this online but it's a three-year journey. We cannot achieve this overnight," she said. Simply because of the sheer volume and complexity of the employment insurance system."

Finley estimates it will take three years to bring the employer part of the automated system up to speed.

But the union maintains that automation is not the solution, and the extra resources will only scratch the surface of the backlog that's been growing for months, not weeks.