Overburdened phone system a recipe for frustration among pensioners

Originally published in the Globe and Mail on November 17th, 2011. To go to the Globe and Mail website please, click here

Retired Canadians who need help applying for pension benefits are forced to navigate convoluted government telephone systems and wait on hold for long periods of time just to get through to under-resourced call centres that are often not authorized to deal with their specific problem.

As a result, Service Canada employees and people who advocate for seniors say it is taking longer for many seniors to receive money from the Canada Pension Plan and especially from Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Applications for those benefits that require any human intervention from Service Canada staff are now taking six to eight months to complete – a time span that’s grown over the past year and significantly exceeds Service Canada’s own standards.

The federal Human Resources Department, which is responsible for Service Canada, is trying to move pension benefits to a more computerized system as it reduces its staff across the country. It is a cost-saving measure that Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says should ultimately provide better service to Canadians.

But, for many seniors, the application process is an exercise in frustration.

Jemma Templeton, a manager at the 411 Seniors Centre Society in Vancouver, said it is challenging even for her highly skilled volunteers to get through on the Service Canada phone system in a prompt manner.

Before the volunteers can handle a file for an elderly client, that client must verify by telephone with a Service Canada agent that the volunteer has permission to act on his or her behalf. But it is sometimes impossible to get through to those agents because the phone lines are jammed, Ms. Templeton said.

So seniors “sometimes have to come into the office two or three times just to make that phone call happen,” she said.

In addition, Ms. Templeton said, volunteers at her centre who have 15 years of experience are struggling with the phone system. “So how do you think that leaves the seniors feeling?”

Service Canada employees say people whose first language is not English or French have a particularly difficult time getting through the layers of the phone system.

Susan Eng , vice-president for advocacy at CARP, a national, non-profit organization for seniors, said many of her members find that, even if they manage to get through to a Service Canada agent on the telephone line, they are often unable to help with their situation.

But just getting through has become more difficult as the number of people working at the call centres declines.

One Service Canada agent said workers who handle questions about CPP are regularly answering calls to find the client apologizing for being in the bathroom. “Many people have waited on hold so long that they need to take care of their bodily functions and they do not want to lose their place in the queue,” she said.

Another call-centre employee said the department has been trying to ignore the staff shortages but the workers feel they are reaching a crisis point. “Right now we have applications in our office unprocessed from February and March of this year,” she said.

One of her clients, who has cancer and diabetes and cannot pay for her medicine, has been waiting months to be reassessed for the Guaranteed Income Supplement. “She cries on the phone,” the worker said. “She says, ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t have food to eat.’ It’s heart-wrenching.”

Jean Crowder, the Human Resources critic for the federal New Democrats, said CPP and OAS are the only sources of income for many retirees.

In those cases, Ms. Crowder said, “chances are they don’t have eight months worth of savings in the back. You are putting people at risk here. Whether they are having to borrow money from family and friends or whether they are having to go on social assistance, I don’t know how they are surviving.”

©  The Globe and Mail