Federal call centres dropped more than 3 million calls last year
Employment Insurance call centres routinely fail to meet standards on timely responses to callers
Service Canada's call centre agents answer only about half the telephone calls made by people with questions about Employment Insurance (EI), a CBC News investigation shows.
The rest of the calls are lost because the system is overloaded, or because callers hang up after being put on hold.
That lacklustre performance — during the relatively slow post-2016 period, when EI claims were falling sharply across Canada — is weaker even than the results Service Canada says it has achieved.
And it comes despite the Liberal government spending up to $200 million since 2016 to hire more agents and update the technology.
"When senior management … finds itself facing call volumes it is unable or unwilling to staff and provision for, they typically move to a strategy of customer call avoidance," said David Filwood, a call centre expert and critic of government-run operations.
The strategy "includes far longer hold times than a consumer would ever experience from a private call centre … with mazes of monotonous computerized voices … that leave callers floundering in voice mail jail, unable to reach a live human."
Service Canada operates 10 so-called EI Specialized Call Centres from St. John's, NL, to Vancouver, staffed by about 1,425 people. The 2018-19 budget for the centres was $83.8 million; most of that money goes to salaries.
The system has been underfunded for years, according to the consulting firm PwC Canada, which produced a report on the system in 2016.
Moving the goalposts
Service Canada initially set a service standard requiring agents to answer 80 per cent of calls (those calls that actually got through to the queuing system, at any rate) within three minutes.
On April 1, 2014, the agency moved the goalposts, stretching the three-minute window to 10 minutes and acknowledging that the earlier standard was unrealistic.
Service Canada currently can't meet even that relaxed standard; only 67 per cent of calls got through to an agent within 10 minutes in 2018-19, down from 73 per cent the year before.
Since 2016, Service Canada has added 384 agents to its EI Specialized Call Centre workforce; it says it has increased the capacity of the network by 40 per cent.
But the investments still have not solved the problem of so-called "blocked calls" — calls made to agents that were lost because the overloaded system couldn't even put them into a queue.
There were 3.1 million of these lost "blocked calls" in 2018-19 — along with another 979,761 calls that did get into a queue but were lost because their callers hung up before they could speak to an agent.
About 4.6 million calls did get through to an agent in 2018-19 — about half of all attempts to speak to a live human at the call centres that year.
In a 2017 report to Parliament, Canada's auditor general cited the same "blocked call" problem at Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) call centres, where agents are required to answer calls within two minutes.
"We found that the Agency blocked more than half of the calls it received (about 29 million out of 53.5 million) because it could not handle the volume," said the report. "Blocked calls were those that did not reach either an agent or the automated self-service system."
By ignoring "blocked calls," the CRA was able to claim rosier results for its call centres, the auditor general found. "While the [CRA] reported that it met its targets … its performance measures were incomplete and its call centres' results were overstated."
Service Canada was alerted to its own "call blocking" problem in a 2016 report it commissioned from consultants PwC Canada.
"… accessibility (being able to get through to a call agent) is still a factor that must be addressed, i.e., reducing call blocking," warned the $700,000 report, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.
Service Canada claims that in 2018-19, two-thirds of calls intended for its EI agents actually made it into a queue.
But the agency did not include in that calculation calls that were abandoned in the queue by callers who, in some cases, waited longer than 10 minutes to speak to an agent.
A spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada, the parent department for Service Canada, said most of those calls are abandoned within the first 10 minutes and are therefore not counted.
Department spokesman Christopher Simard also said most EI callers use an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system — the first stop for all callers, including those wanting to speak to an agent — to get answers without needing to talk to a human.
Simard added that the Service Canada call centres for EI, the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security (OAS) inquiries are being upgraded with new technology that will improve performance by March of next year.
Filwood, principal consultant with TeleSoft Systems in Nanaimo, B.C., says Service Canada also needs to improve its workforce, since its agents typically need to be rotated out after three to five years because of burnout from dealing with rude, angry and abusive callers.
"All CSRs [customer service representatives] have an expiration date," he said.
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