A closed Service Canada location, in Toronto is photographed, on Thurs., March 26, 2020.
Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail
The federal government is considering a shutdown of its national network of Service Canada centres where citizens can apply in person for employment insurance, old age security, pension benefits and passports, The Globe and Mail has learned.
On Wednesday, nearly 60 per cent of the 317 centres were closed, said Mike Maka, a spokesman for Ahmed Hussein, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, who oversees the department. All but 10 of the 101 centres in Ontario were closed, as well as most of those in Alberta, British Columbia, and nearly half of the 80 locations in Quebec, according to the Service Canada website.
That could lead to a total shutdown in the coming days as many of the closings are due to employees not showing up for work, said sources familiar with the situation whom The Globe is not identifying because they werent authorized to speak about the matter. Asked about a possible shutdown, Mr. Maka declined to comment, saying: The centres have been closed for a variety of reasons.” He added: “Service Canada endeavours to provide the best available services for Canadians, and takes into account things like absenteeism as well as weather to make sure the safety of employees is paramount and that were still able to provide the services we need to Canadians.
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Job losses have exploded in the past two weeks amid a widespread shutdown of the economy to slow the spread of the virus, overwhelming the government as unprecedented numbers of people almost one million last week alone filed for unemployment benefits. Citizens have complained the website hasnt worked or they cant get through after waiting for hours on the telephone. Canadians who dont have online access at home have in many cases lost access to the internet as their local libraries are shut.
As a result, many have gone out of frustration to Service Canada centres despite warnings to stay home and away from others. In some cases they have braved lineups to file applications in person, according to reports.
Crystal Warner, executive vice president with the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, which represents 17,000 Service Canada employees including about 3,360 who staff the centres, said many employees are calling in sick or refusing to work because theyre not feeling safe [and] theyre not safe.
The government has encouraged Canadians to apply for services available through the centres online, by telephone, or by mail instead, asking those with symptoms of COVID-19 to self-isolate and stay away.
It has posted employees by the doors to centres to limit the number of people inside to keep them apart and limit the spread of the virus. The centres still get about 11,000 visitors a day while about 95 per cent of EI claimants apply online in normal times.
Ms. Warner said tempers have boiled over and staff, who she said are among the lowest paid workers in government, have borne the brunt of it. In the past 10 days there has been a fight between clients at a Service Canada centre in east-end Toronto, and police were called in to locations in Kingston, Longueuil, Que., and Nanaimo, B.C., after frustrated applicants became aggressive and violent, she said.
In other instances, she said citizens have coughed deliberately on staff, while others shoved past them to enter. At some point a lot of our workers got so scared to come in to work they called in sick. The union has asked Ottawa to do more to protect workers and asked that visits be by appointment only. We dont want to close our doors because we dont want to impact the most vulnerable in society,” she said.
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The union has also encouraged members to invoke their right to refuse dangerous work under the Canada Labour Code; About 10 did so in Halifax two weeks ago; three Edmonton offices closed Tuesday after employees followed suit.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the delays and frustrations newly unemployed Canadians are experiencing applying for benefits, and said public servants are working around the clock while dealing with unprecedented demand and all of the same personal stress everyone else is facing. He said an online application portal will launch as quickly as possible.”
The government is shuffling 1,300 public servants, many from Passport Canada, into roles processing claims and taking calls. By Tuesday, it had processed 143,000 claims in the past eight days, a minority of the 500,000 that applied last week. Mr. Trudeau also announced a new “Canada emergency response benefit that will provide $1,800 after tax to affected Canadians, replacing two earlier benefits.
With a report from Tom Cardoso