EI claimants are going weeks without income as federal call system slows to a crawl

Canadians who have gone weeks without benefits because of issues with their EI applications are struggling to fix the problem because they cannot get through on the designated government phone lines.

Bureaucratic glitches and busy signals blighting efforts to protect people left jobless by the pandemic

EI claimants denied benefits due to bureaucratic snafus are still waiting weeks to get help from the federal government. (Shutterstock / KieferPix)

There were times this month when Miranda Petrossi and her boyfriend were working four phones at once — calling Service Canada's employment insurance information line over and over, for hours on end, desperately trying to find someone who could tell her why her EI application had been denied after she lost her job due to the pandemic.

Petrossi is one of many Canadians who have gone weeks without benefits because of problems with their EI applications — problems they're struggling to sort out now because they can't get anyone on the phone.

"I haven't had a paycheque since March 15," said Petrossi, who worked as an early childhood educator for the YMCA in Oakville, Ont., until COVID-19 shut it down. "I potentially may not have a job until September and I don't know how much longer I can continue going like this."

Most of the Canadians caught in this situation applied for EI because they were laid off before the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was announced on March 25, or because they were under the impression that EI applications would be shifted over to the CERB program anyway.

Busy signals

And they've been told they can't simply drop their EI applications now and apply for CERB instead. Social media sites are full of posts from people voicing similar complaints and CBC itself has received dozens of emails about the problem.

Many of those reports are from people complaining of constant busy signals on the EI line, which is getting swamped by thousands of calls from anxious, unemployed Canadians. Others describe getting past a marathon of menu options and inputting their social insurance numbers — only to be told to call back later because call volumes are too high.

Employment and Social Development Canada says the EI call centre is experiencing an unprecedented volume of calls and it acknowledged that's affecting both service accessibility wait times. It says it is working to increase the number of agents taking calls and that the government is pursuing additional measures to increase the automation of calls.

A man carries bags of groceries while walking through a deserted Metropolis at Metrotown shopping mall in Burnaby, B.C., April 12, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"I can't believe that they're only open regular business hours … from 8:30 to 4:30. It was shocking to me," said Jason Shewchuk, who works in film production in Vancouver.

Since the online EI application did not mention the pandemic, Shewchuk listed "other" as the reason he was out of work. His application generated an automated reply from Service Canada telling him to call a 1-800 number and provide more information.

Ten days and more than 1,700 calls later (his phone kept a tally), he finally got through around 2 p.m. late last week.

"It kicked me through and I stared hearing the elevator music," he said. "And I was like, 'I'm in. This is awesome.'"

Then he heard an automated message telling him the wait would be more than two hours. He ended up staying on the line until the call centre shut down for the day.

One step forward, two weeks back

He got through again the next day (57 redials, two and a half hours on hold). The agent he spoke to was able to figure out the problem with his application — and told him the revised application would have to be processed all over again.

Service Canada is telling him he should get his first payment roughly within two weeks. If not, it's back to phone queue hell.

Jessica Moniere is an aspiring actress in Toronto who was making ends meet as a barista when the pandemic shut the economy down. She said she thought she had applied successfully for EI when her promised access code for her account came in the mail.

A woman wearing a pandemic mask talks on her phone in Toronto on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

But then weeks passed with no payment — while she watched friends get their CERB payments within days of that program's launch.

"I'm getting by solely based on savings at this point because there is no income at all coming in," she said.

'I had been waiting so long to talk to someone'

She spent hours every day getting busy signals and hitting redial. To put her creative talents to use (and protect her sanity), she shot a short video of herself dancing to the beat of the EI line's busy signal and posted it to her Instagram account.

"It's just a way of having fun with yourself because there's nothing else to do right now. And in a time like this, laughter is what we need most," Moniere said.

She did get through one day last week after spending four hours on hold.

"And once you get someone, you shoot out of your chair ... I couldn't even speak English when he answered because I had been waiting so long to talk to someone," she said.

She was told her money would be coming soon because it takes 28 days for EI applications to be processed, even when they're related to the pandemic.

Joe Halls' attempts to get EI — and later CERB — have been thwarted because, according to the system, his SIN number doesn't match his address. As he tries to sort the situation out, he's feeling the financial pressure of living in an expensive city like Toronto without a reliable income.

"If not for the good fortune of having an excellent friend, I would probably be on the street," he said.

Petrossi eventually got through to an agent, only to be told that a glitch in the system disqualified her because of a previous job she quit more than seven months ago. That glitch means the system is discounting the fact that she lost her most recent job because of the pandemic.

Now, she has had to send off a request for reconsideration via snail mail. She's been told it could take up to three weeks just to get a response.

"I'm very fortunate that I have a roof over my head … that I have the support of my family," she said. "But I know that there are other people in similar situations … that don't have that support."


Karina Roman

Senior Reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Karina Roman joined CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2008. She can be reached on email karina.roman@cbc.ca or on Twitter @karinaroman1

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