Launch of Ontario's vaccination hotline 'was a shambles,' says worker hired to take calls

The customer service agents tasked with helping Ontarians book their COVID-19 vaccination appointments by phone received little training and were inadequately prepared for the job, according to two people hired to work the vaccine helpline.

Temps hired only days before phone lines opened, got just 3 hours training, struggled to help seniors

Ontario launched its online booking system for COVID-19 vaccinations on Monday, with everyone born in 1941 or earlier now eligible to get an appointment for their first dose of vaccine. The province also launched a telephone hotline to help people having troubles with the website and those without internet access. (Region of Waterloo)

The customer service agents tasked with helping Ontarians book their COVID-19 vaccination appointments by phone received little training and were inadequately prepared for the job, according to people hired to work the vaccine helpline.

The provincial government contracted eight companies to provide the estimated 2,200 people staffing the vaccination hotline. Hundreds were hired only days before the launch, even though the project had been in the works for months. 

Ontario's online vaccination booking system launched along with the hotline at 8 a.m. ET Monday, for people born in 1941 or earlier to make appointments. Within minutes, thousands of those who had problems with the website filled the phone lines to capacity. 

Two temporary workers hired to take the calls say there was little that the agents could do to help. 

"It was a shambles," said one of the temps, a woman who lives in Toronto. "I'm just appalled at the mismanagement." 

"Creating that level of anxiety for the people you're trying to serve, it's not an acceptable way to treat the populace, especially anybody who's over 80," said the other temp, a man from northern Ontario.

This temp worker was hired to staff Ontario's telephone helpline for COVID-19 vaccination appointments. CBC News granted him anonymity to speak about his experience without fear of losing his job. (CBC)

CBC News agreed not to reveal either worker's identity to protect them from any repercussions for speaking out. 

Less than 3 hours of training

Both workers said they were hired last Thursday by contractor Compugen and were promised they would get three days of training. Instead, they received less than three hours.

The limited training "left me with a feeling of dread by the end of it, that I wasn't prepared to even engage in the first phone call," said the man. 

The Toronto woman described the training as rapid-fire and highly technical. "The fact that I was going to be let loose on the seniors of Ontario trying to get a vaccine, after a year of them having to face the most terrible emotional challenges, I felt completely ill-equipped and really quite upset," she said.

CBC News asked Lisa Thompson, minister of government and consumer services, to respond to the claims and to answer specific questions about why workers were hired so close to the launch and given so little training. 

"We have more trained staff on the line than the other jurisdiction in Canada, as well as many in the U.S., and, as a result, we have not faced the same technical challenges that others have experienced," said Thompson's press secretary, Jack Sullivan, in an email Wednesday. 

Ontario Ministry of Health officials say that 153 mass vaccination sites are to be set up around the province in March. (Paul Smith/CBC)

The agents fielded 76,000 calls on Monday and Tuesday, said Sullivan. With the phone lines open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, that works out to fewer than 3,200 calls fielded per hour, or each agent taking on average fewer than 1.5 calls per hour. 

Agents 'were absolutely desperate'

During a news conference on Thursday, Premier Doug Ford praised the work of the call centre agents.

"They've done an incredible job," Ford said while visiting a vaccination clinic in Hamilton. "I want to thank all 2,200 operators. The wait times in the last 24 hours they told me is less than a minute. So they're pumping it out."

Ontario set up the hotline so that people without internet access could book vaccination appointments over the phone, and to assist people facing technical difficulties with the online system.

Throughout Monday, the customer service agents taking the calls inundated their supervisors with questions through an online chat channel, unable to book appointments for the seniors they were speaking to, according to the female temp worker.

She said the questions from the agents included: What to do if the senior doesn't have an email address? How can they receive confirmation of their booking without a cell phone? What should the person do when their postal code doesn't match up with what's on file for their OHIP number?

The agents "were absolutely desperate, they were writing in capital letters," said the woman. "People were saying that they couldn't troubleshoot anything. They couldn't transfer a call to a public health unit."

She said the only advice supervisors offered was to tell agents to look at their training manual. 

"This was clearly inadequate training and preparation," she said. "These poor people [working the phones] were hung out to dry." 

Government says agents had access to resources

    A government official said telephone agents are provided with detailed FAQs and work instructions, guidance from the Ministry of Health on vaccine topics, and instructional videos on the call system.

    Both workers said the company that hired them — Compugen, headquartered in Richmond Hill, Ont. — did not deliver on its promise to provide a laptop and headset for taking the calls. Compugen officials did not respond Wednesday to CBC's request for comment.

    Other companies providing staff for Ontario's vaccination hotline include Ian Martin Group, Nordia, Bill Gosling Outsourcing, IBM, CompuCom, Ricoh and Sykes, according to a government official. The official declined to provide the estimated cost of staffing the helpline, but said that some Ontario government employees are also among the people taking the calls.


    Mike Crawley

    Provincial affairs reporter

    Mike Crawley is a senior reporter for CBC News, covering provincial affairs in Ontario. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. He was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.


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