May 27, 2020

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Bills mount during wait for federal cash

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OTTAWA — Some Manitobans are staring economic hardship in the face as they wait weeks for a federal pandemic payment or employment insurance benefits.

"It just gets very frustrating, very fast," said Denten Dandeneau, a rail-car technician who was laid off by CN Rail almost a month ago.

Denten Dandeneau said he’s called Service Canada at least every second day, and often waits hours to speak with someone who doesn’t have an answer, or his call gets dropped.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Denten Dandeneau said he’s called Service Canada at least every second day, and often waits hours to speak with someone who doesn’t have an answer, or his call gets dropped.

He’s among dozens of Manitobans who have contacted their MP and the Free Press about delays in getting federal benefits.

Dandeneau applied for Employment Insurance shortly after his April 20 layoff, but the Canada Revenue Agency told him he would get the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit instead.

At $2,000 per month, CERB is less than Dandeneau’s EI payout. His collective agreement requires CN to top up EI payments and restore his earnings to 80 per cent, which doesn’t apply to CERB recipients.

“I have a house; I have a truck.… If I’m making half of what I should be, I can’t make those payments. It gets scary, near the end of three or four months.” – Denten Dandeneau

"I have a house; I have a truck.… If I’m making half of what I should be, I can’t make those payments," said Dandeneau. "It gets scary, near the end of three or four months."

Dandeneau said he’s called Service Canada at least every second day, and often waits hours to speak with someone who doesn’t have an answer, or his call gets dropped. He suspects the system is overloaded, and is annoyed three weeks have passed and he still hasn't learned whether he can collect EI.

Dandeneau’s MP, New Democrat Daniel Blaikie, said many people in his Elmwood-Transcona riding need answers.

"We keep hearing from Canadians who are trying to fill out their paperwork in good faith, are asked to contact EI to clarify a detail or two and then have to spend hours, days, or even weeks on hold trying to get through," he said.

He said Service Canada’s online callback service doesn't allow staff to modify forms, so applicants have to wait for hours in a phone queue.

"It is an infuriating experience in an already stressful time, and it simply should not be happening," Blaikie said.

"It is an infuriating experience in an already stressful time, and it simply should not be happening." – MP Daniel Blaikie

The problem, which preceded the pandemic, involves Employment and Social Development Canada, the department responsible for Service Canada, and the Canada Revenue Agency.

Portage la Prairie resident Carolyn Staples lost her job at a seniors meal drop-in on Feb. 2, and needed to answer a CRA question before getting employment insurance.

She mailed a medical certificate from her doctor to the CRA’s Edmonton office on March 12; the office said to wait until the end of the month for it to arrive. By that point, the Prairies were in lockdown.

Staples has left voice mail messages that haven't been returned. "It’s like banging your head against a brick wall; there’s no getting through," she said.

It took weeks to arrange a second note from the doctor. With Canada Post reporting huge amounts of mail, she pondered paying $12 for a registered letter, but wasn’t sure if anyone in Edmonton would be around to sign for it.

After 15 weeks without income, her husband’s earnings are running out.

"It’s like banging your head against a brick wall; there’s no getting through." – Carolyn Staples

"How am I supposed to pay my bills when there’s no money?" she asked.

Service Canada has repeatedly referred her to the CRA, whose staff members are bogged down with CERB claims.

Portage-Lisgar Tory MP Candice Bergen said other constituents have also reported long waits and documents getting lost in the mail.

"(MPs) are at the front lines of dealing with and helping constituents who not only are wanting to get support, but also are wanting to get programs unrelated to COVID-19," Bergen said Tuesday during a pared-down sitting of Parliament.

Families Minister Ahmed Hussen responded that Service Canada is coping with a heavy workload just as it closed its centres and moved staff to phone lines.

"We have had unprecedented volumes, but we have redeployed thousands of staff to front-line services by phone and by other means," he said.

Nearly 3,000 workers have been redeployed to help deliver EI and CERB.

Staples says she’s sensitive to the vast amount of claims; 7.8 million Canadians have filed for the CERB in just five weeks.

"Like everyone else right now, things are difficult. It sucks for everybody," she said.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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