Politics

Frustrated EI applicants find an end-run around overwhelmed call centres

Canadians forced to spend days trying to get through on Service Canada's designated phone line to sort out problems with their employment insurance applications are sharing tips through social media and web forums — including a link to an online form that can get an agent to call back within 48 hours.

An online form buried on Service Canada's website can get faster results — for now, at least

A woman checks out a jobs advertisement sign in Toronto on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Canadians forced to spend days trying to get through on Service Canada's designated phone line to sort out problems with their employment insurance applications are sharing tips through social media and web forums — including a link to an online form that can get an agent to call back within 48 hours.

But government officials warn that if the number of people using that fast-track form increases substantially, the system will not be able to manage the volume — meaning longer waits for a call back, or perhaps no call back at all.

"There isn't any hidden capacity in the system," said one senior government official familiar with the situation, adding the form was created in the wake of the temporary closure of in-person Service Canada centres due to the pandemic.

"The form is not a substitute for the call centre route," he added.

Thousands of Canadians are sharing tips on how to get around the massive call volumes slowing down the federal government's EI service. (Shutterstock)

Many Canadians who applied for EI after losing their jobs due to the pandemic — and before the Canada Emergency Response Benefit was announced — say they have spent days trying to get through to an agent after an administrative snafu tied up their applications and they were told to contact Service Canada.

Those who can't get through also can't get paid. Many have gone weeks without receiving any benefits.

More than 2 million applications in a month

More than two million people applied for EI in March alone after economic activity shut down across the country. After that initial rush, the government redeployed 3,000 Service Canada employees to help with the call volume. Clearly that hasn't been enough, especially on the call centre side.

Those phoning the call centre often hear an automated message telling them that call volume is too high and they must try again at another time. Callers are not given the option of requesting a call back.

"The system does not have that ability," said the official. "Upgrades are necessary to do that and that is not a short-term fix."

But Canadians have discovered that online callback form and have been sharing it on Facebook and Reddit, among other websites.

'I figured it can't hurt'

"I was up late worrying one night about how I was going to pay my rent and bills," said Shelly Obholzer, a single mom who applied for EI but hadn't received her money.

When she couldn't get through to an agent over the phone, she found the form and gave it a shot.

"I figured it can't hurt to see where it would go, considering I wasn't able to get through (on the phone). Three days later I received a call … to my surprise it was a rep from Service Canada," said Obholzer, adding that the agent sorted out her problem and told her to use the form again if she needed further assistance.

The form does not ask for any sensitive personal information. It asks for the applicant's name, preferred language, location and phone number. It lists the applicant's reasons for needing assistance; applicants can check off more than one box. There is a box at the bottom to type in details of the relevant problem.

Marina Mitchell applied for EI at the start of her maternity leave six weeks ago. She found the link to the callback form through a Google search which led her to the website of a financial and credit counselling company that was telling its clients about the form.

'Enough's enough'

Mitchell said the online system kept telling her that her application was under review, while trying to get through on the phone was "useless."

"I know I didn't lose my job, but the reality is I still have bills to pay and I just really needed an answer," she said. "So at some point, I just said, 'Enough's enough, my account's going to go into overdraft.'"

She got a call back the day after submitting her form. The money was deposited in her account three days later.

"They have a scale. They ask what's going on, how badly do you need the EI," Mitchell said. "So I said my account's going to go into overdraft and I have a mortgage, so I think they prioritized it as top priority."

Where to find the form

To find the form on the Service Canada EI benefits page, scroll down to the very bottom and click on the the Contact Employment Insurance link to get to a page with two highlighted notices. The first box is about the higher-than-normal call volumes the service is experiencing.

The second box, below the first, is about the temporary closure of Service Canada offices: "For additional support, please fill out the service request form." That's where the link to the form can be found.

The form was created for people who tend to use the in-person offices — those with complex cases, those considered vulnerable and those with limited internet access.

Seniors' groups, anti-poverty and inner-city organizations and MPs were given the form's address so they can help their clients — in some cases by filling out the form on the applicant's behalf.

Fawkes Conibear, a University of Guelph student who lost his part-time job, was given the link to the form when he contacted his MP for help with EI.

A 'triage system'

Conibear said the person he spoke to at the MP's office told him they were worried about too many people finding out about the form.

"They said it was sort of a triage system for cases that were a little bit more complicated," he said. "If too many people have access to the [form], it'll throw off the triaging system."

The senior government official said the agents calling those using the online form are the staffers who worked at the shuttered Service Canada centres; they are not call centre workers.

Another piece of advice people are sharing on social media is to contact the call centres before the phone lines are open in Quebec and Ontario — to avoid the morning rush of callers from the two most populous provinces, and to capitalize on the fact that lines are open for people in the Atlantic provinces for an hour before that.

About the Author

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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