Politics

Automation of EI claims created longer wait times: report

Jobless Canadians have complained for years about the frustrations, and long wait times, in applying for employment insurance. Now, a 10-year review of Service Canada's project to automate EI processing confirms their complaints: the new system increased both wait times and the backlog of claims.

Vaunted project to automate EI claims processing undermined service, says internal review

Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos acknowledged through a spokesperson that Service Canada has had failings in processing employment-insurance claims, as outlined in a new report. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A new report confirms what the jobless have been saying for years: 10 years of "modernizing" the processing of employment-insurance claims created even longer waiting times and bigger backlogs.

A federal evaluation looked at Service Canada's record of automating EI claims since 2006, a period that included a surge of joblessness after the 2008 global economic meltdown.

An evaluation of Service Canada's EI claims processing has found that an automation project begun in 2006 hasn't reduced delays or backlogs. (cbc.ca)
Over those years, thousands of desperate jobless claimants complained to Service Canada, their MPs and the news media about the bottlenecks in getting EI cheques to pay for mortgages, rent and groceries.

And now a big-picture analysis has found the automation project, including a migration to online EI applications, poorly served anxious Canadians suddenly without an income.

The evaluation carried out by Employment and Social Development Canada shows that Service Canada processed only 71 per cent of EI claims within the target 28 days in 2011-2012. That's sharply down from the 80 per cent performance the agency had generally achieved starting a decade ago.

And the backlog of claims older than 50 days has been rising, to almost 100,000 in 2011-2012 compared with 36,000 the year before.

Insufficient investments

Not surprisingly, client satisfaction levels have plummeted, the report says, to 63 per cent in 2012 from 78 per cent in 2008.

Service Canada has said its new system cut the average cost of processing each claim to about $59 from $66. But the report's authors reject even that assertion, saying the agency failed to account for all costs and didn't collect enough data to make any conclusion.

The report says "the absence of sufficient investments in technology to support EI processing, combined with reduced budgets and an increasingly complex operating environment, limited the department's ability to realize the potential benefits of the automation and modernization agenda."

The evaluation does note one bright spot: when the government temporarily hired 800 people in 2009 to help process EI claims after the recession, turnaround times improved dramatically. But when they were laid off two years later in a deficit-cutting program, claims-processing times fell as the machines took over from the humans.

The report was completed in April this year, and posted on the web in late July.

Major improvements in service standards were not observed ...- Federal briefing note outlining findings of a review of EI claims processing

An internal briefing note on the evaluation, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, says "major improvements in service standards were not observed. … realized savings were difficult to discern as comprehensive financial data were limited and trends could not be accurately determined" and the report "could raise media attention."

The fumbling of a major automation program for EI claims comes as the Liberals struggle to clean up another technical boondoggle, the Phoenix centralized payroll system that has kept hundreds of public servants waiting anxiously for government paycheques and messed up the pay of about 80,000 workers altogether.

A spokeswoman for Jean-Yves Duclos, the Liberal social development minister, acknowledged Service Canada's failings in processing EI claims.

"Canadians expect quality and fast service from their government – whether the service is provided online, over the phone or in person," Emilie Gauduchon said in an email.

"According to Service Canada data, too many Canadians are not receiving the level of service they expect."

When in opposition, the Liberals railed against the Conservative government for long EI wait times and busy signals at call centres.

Launch review

In his first budget, Finance Minister Bill Morneau earmarked $19 million in 2016-2017 to beef up Service Canada, and $73 million over the next two years partly to hire more people at EI call centres.

On May 12, the government also launched a review of EI "service quality," including an online consultation. Gauduchon says a final report is expected this fall.

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau put $19 million into Service Canada this year to help speed up EI claims processing. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
The focus on EI processing comes as Canada's jobless rate is rising, with more than 31,000 jobs lost just last month.

A paralegal with the London (Ont.) Employment Help Centre says her office has seen an increase in clients asking for help in filing their EI claims, and says the online and automation systems are partly to blame.

"Many of those that are trying to use the service are people who are not necessarily skilled or have the patience in using automated services," Lisa Birch said in an interview. "They're intimidated."

Birch says processing times of 50 days or more are common, and appeals can take six months.


Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

With files from CBC's Evan Dyer

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