Thousands of workers reassigned to process federal benefit claims
7,500 employees reassigned from other departments
Wearing a headset in his home office, Canada Revenue Agency customer service agent, Joël Boucher, attempts to calm down stressed-out callers looking to make claims for Canada emergency response benefits or CERB.
"When the calls come in, there's all kinds of different stress situations," said Boucher.
Switching between French and English, depending on what part of the country the call is from, Boucher takes 40 to 50 calls a day. Between those requests, he keeps an eye on his own 12-year-old son.
"We're kind of afraid of the long-term impact that this is going to have, but I think we all agree that health comes first," he said.
Boucher is just one of thousands of federal employees now handling the millions of inquiries into CERB and related federal benefits that have been announced since the COVID-19 outbreak forced so many Canadians to leave work and stay home.
As the new policies were announced, a request went out asking public servants in less critical roles to help process claims at the Canada Revenue Agency.
"7,500 employees have responded to the call," said Marc Brière, president of the union of taxation employees. "We've never processed so many claims, so fast."
To date, the Canada Revenue Agency says more than 8 million applications have been processed, at a total dollar value of close to $20 billion, and yet, many Canadians still say they're waiting for hours to get through to an agent.
Other callers complain they don't qualify for the benefits.
The process of applying couldn't be simpler. Understanding whether you qualify or not in another matter entirely.—@ActionVOutcome
I applied but did no receive anything. In January, I had ended a 15-week health related EI. By the time I was still applying for jobs, the crisis happened. I don't qualify for CEMB, EI and no money left.—@ray_arsen
Meanwhile, federal directives and policies seem to change daily, adding extra challenges for CRA agents, including Zeeshan Ahmed in Calgary, who usually helps Canadians with RRSP information at income tax time.
Ahmed notes he and other workers are putting in extra hours, as the phone lines remain open until 11 p.m. across the country.
"Most of the time people are very patient," said Ahmed. "There's changes being made every day to make sure that we accommodate as many people as possible, but of course, not everyone can qualify or does qualify and we just take it with whatever the current ruling is at the time."
'Not working like Phoenix'
For some, there's surprise and relief that the new claim system is actually getting money into accounts so fast, while the bitter taste of the Phoenix pay system failures remain for Canada's public servants.
"So far, knock on wood, it's working fantastic," said Brière. "I had some concerns obviously but I got to say, that it's working. Thank God that this is not working like Phoenix, because nobody would get any money."
Early on in the outbreak, call agent Boucher and his family were quarantined due to potential exposure to the coronavirus.
He and his family remain healthy, but he says he empathizes with the stress Canadians are living through.
"We live the COVID-19 as well in our personal life, but our primary goal is always the public. We want to make sure that financial-wise they feel reassured," said Boucher.
"I would just like to thank everybody basically from the public that's giving us a call, that's being patient with us."