2 federal tribunals make high-speed internet access a job condition

Two tribunals have begun making home high-speed internet access a prerequisite for dozens of well-paid federal government jobs despite the fact the CRTC says two million Canadian households don't have access to high-speed broadband

Requirement could disqualify many Canadians from lucrative positions

Two federal tribunals are requiring candidates have home access to high-speed internet to be eligible for appointments.

Two tribunals have begun making home access to high-speed internet a prerequisite for dozens of well-paid federal government appointments, despite the fact it could disqualify many Canadians living in rural and remote areas of the country where high-speed internet isn't available.

The Social Security Tribunal and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board have both recently added high-speed internet access to the list of criteria for those seeking the lucrative appointments, which come with salaries ranging from $108,200 to $127,200 for full-time positions, and between $540 and $635 a day for part-time positions.

"You must work from your home office in Canada and have access to high-speed internet," say the conditions of employment for the Social Security Tribunal, which resolves disputes involving employment insurance, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security.

Candidates expected to work in urban centres

The requirement appears to have been added in recent months. A similar notice of openings for the tribunal in June 2015 said candidates might have to work from home but did not require high-speed internet access.

The Social Security Tribunal has dozens of full-time and part-time members, including several vacancies at the moment.

On Wednesday, the CRTC ruled that access to high-speed internet should be a basic service across Canada. It said two million Canadian households lack access to proper internet service.

The Veterans Review and Appeal Board, which resolves disputes over disability benefits decisions made by Veterans Affairs Canada, also has this requirement.

Spokeswoman Alexandra Shaw said successful candidates for the board are expected to work in one of six urban centres across Canada and to work from home because the board's only administrative offices are in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

"Members need high-speed internet to maintain a reliable connection to the secure systems that give them timely access to veterans' documents in order to prepare for hearings and produce decisions," she wrote. "The board provides members with cellphones with additional hotspot connectivity."

Richard Beaulne, spokesman for the Social Security Tribunal of Canada, said it requires high speed internet because its members work from home.

"All Social Security Tribunal members work electronically from their respective residences across the country," he wrote. "They must have high-speed internet to connect with the Tribunal and to manage their case load electronically."

"High-speed internet is also required because members will need to conduct video conferences for some of their hearings."

'You'll lose a lot'

Critics and observers, however, say the eligibility requirement risks disqualifying a lot of Canadians from being able to apply for the jobs or forces them to move from their homes in more rural towns.

NDP MP Guy Caron says restricting the pool of candidates to those who live in areas with high-speed internet could widen Canada's urban-rural divide.

NDP MP Guy Caron says requiring high-speed internet access at home for federal appointments at two tribunals risks widening the urban-rural divide in Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The urban and rural settings are very different," he said, "and the way that you have to apply those decisions, the criteria you are using is actually very different. If you don't have that rural perspective, you'll lose a lot."

Caron said in his own eastern Quebec riding of Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques, roughly 20 to 25 per cent of the residents only have access to a satellite-based internet service — not the high-speed internet needed to qualify for the jobs on the tribunals. The nearby Gaspé region is even worse, he said.

And the two federal government tribunals aren't the only ones who are making broadband access a condition of employment, according to Caron.

"More and more companies are actually working like this, as well," he said. "We can understand the reason, but it ensures in rural areas where you can't really have reliable high-speed internet that you don't have access to those jobs."

'It is unfair'

David Christopher, spokesman for advocacy group OpenMedia, said the high-speed internet access being required by the two tribunals demonstrates the need for better internet access to allow residents to advance professionally.

'This is a great practical example of how people living in more rural or underserved communities really lose out when they don't have internet access.'- David Christopher, OpenMedia

"This is a great practical example of how people living in more rural or underserved communities really lose out when they don't have internet access….So many jobs, in general, require some degree of internet access from home — particularly if the role has a remote working element to it."

"We're in a situation where nearly one in five Canadians don't have high-speed internet in their home."

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, says requiring job applicants to have home high-speed internet could lead to less diversity of experience on the tribunals. (CBC)

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said the requirement could lead to less diversity of experience among members of the tribunals.

"This would potentially cut out applicants who might, for lots of reasons, might be more likely to not have high-speed internet just because they live in rural areas or they have particular needs, and that is unfortunate," he said.

"Until the actual rollout that was promised today is in effect, it is unfair because you might be cutting out some applicants, and there really should be alternate ways to work or ways to apply to try to broaden the pool."

Gisèle Bouvier of ACORN, which has been lobbying for affordable internet access across Canada, said the government should ensure that all Canadians have an opportunity to apply for government jobs.

"When you look at jobs like that that absolutely require you to be online, it just goes to prove the importance of the  internet," she said. "And the government that is asking people to work for them to be online, well, they should make sure that everyone has equal opportunity and can apply online and work online."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.