Experts say when it comes to the Herculean task of pushing close to one million employment insurance payments out the door in a short period of time, it’s more important to get it done fast than it is to get it done perfectly.
Last week, nearly a million Canadians applied for EI benefits, according to media reports, after they were left jobless when governments across Canada shut down most non-essential businesses in the country to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In typical economic downturns, the job numbers tend to decline steadily over a period of time, giving the federal government time to ramp up the ability to respond with each worsening week. But we are in unprecedented times now.
The era with the second highest number of claims was 1957, when, according to Statistics Canada, 499,213 Canadians filed benefit claims in a single month. The early 1990s recession also had several months of record claims in the 450,000 range, but nothing has come even close to the number of claims now being submitted.
More recently, the monthly number of EI claims was between 236,530 and 245,240 between August and December of last year, according to Statistics Canada.
With rent due at the end of the month for many people, the federal government finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to ramp up its processing efforts, right when many of its own employees are being forced to work from home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
To meet that demand, the federal government has augmented its EI processing workforce of 3,500 with an additional 1,300 employees from other departments, such as passport processing centres.
Employees performing investigations and reassessments on EI claims have also been moved to claims processing.
The federal government has said it has plans to ramp up the number of people processing claims, and they will be revealed once the Liberals pass their emergency $82 billion coronavirus action plan.
Keeping EI claims workers safe
Eddy Bourque, national president for the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, told CBC News there is already a backlog of claims that need to be processed, and continuing to process them the same way now will take years.
Bourque said some sort of automation will be required to meet the surge in demand without compromising the safety of Canadians who would be required to work together to get the job done.
“They’re going to have to explain to our members what steps they’re taking to make sure it’s feasible to process all of these,” he said. “Our concern is they have to protect the health and safety of those workers doing this work, because without them, none of it will be possible.”
A key part of the plan, according to a government official speaking on condition of anonymity, will be to spend less time confirming whether the claims are all justified and settle on clawing back any fraud after the crisis is over.
Progress not perfection
Mel Cappe, former chairman of the Employment Insurance Commission and deputy minister of Human Resources Development Canada during the 1998 ice storm, said he’s confident the federal government can get the job done, if it goes about it the right way.
At the time, he had to preside over the processing, ramping up the rollout of benefits on a much smaller scale but during a time when the department’s offices had no power.
“If they try to do this perfectly, where nobody who doesn’t deserve it gets the money; they will [mess] it up,” he said. “If they try to get the money out because people need it, they will do a good job, and there’ll be a couple of cheques that go to people who don’t deserve it; who cares.”
Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer in economics from Concordia University, said it’s much better to make the mistake of giving someone money who does not need it than it is to deny money to someone who really is in need.
“If you deny EI to somebody that really did deserve it, when they lose their house, when they lose their apartment, when they’re evicted, when they can’t put food on the table, you can’t go back and say, ‘Oops, let’s undo that,'” Lander told CBC News.
Regardless of how efficiently the federal government is able to meet the surge in EI demands, the whole process will likely be reviewed by the Auditor General of Canada, eventually revealing to Canadians how much was over- or under-spent.
“It’s taxpayer money, and you have to be respectful of that, but you are also going to be judged by results,” said former Conservative cabinet minister Tony Clement, who was the Ontario health minister during the SARS outbreak.
“They really are in a pickle.… There is no right answer. It’s a terrible place to be. But ultimately leaders are going to say: ‘I have to do this for the public, and if there is a corner that has to be cut, let’s cut the corner and worry about the consequences after the fact,'” Clement added.