B.C. welfare phone wait times drag on despite promised fix

B.C. welfare phone wait times drag on despite promised fix

B.C.'s welfare recipients continue to live their lives on hold — literally — despite a government promise to cut down "egregious" phone wait times for social assistance recipients.

In the past eight months, the average caller wait times continue to range between 34 to 58 minutes, according to ministry data gathered by an activist group.

While average wait times decreased a few months in 2016, they've never returned to pre-2014 levels.

"Despite the minister's repeated assurances, they are working to address the issue, wait times are still hovering around an hour on average. This is a real and persistent access crisis," said Erin Pritchard, a lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre who calls the wait times "egregious."

Last December, CBC reported that government data showed the average phone wait time was nearly one hour, according to ministry data from documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

The Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation promised to add 27 per cent more staff to the automated telephone inquiry line after an outcry.

The ministry budget also increased by $510-million over the next three years.

But it seems little has changed when it comes to hold times.

The government admits a struggle to get waits under the target of 10 minutes, given the landslide of calls.

A B.C. Liberal Party representative emailed CBC and explained staffing levels were increased by 20 per cent in 2016 to handle the 125,000 calls each month, or 1.5-million calls a year.

"Our aim is to answer all calls as quickly as possible," said the email.

Callers do have the option of leaving a callback number, which maintains their place in line.

Clients can also go to the office in person.

But poverty activists say with the average welfare cheque of $610 a month, most people can't afford a phone.

"People in need can't get welfare, and when they do, the amount isn't high enough," said Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project who says call wait times are a barrier that drive up homeless numbers.

"It ends up being life-threatening because these people are really in need."

Chronic issue

Wait times on the automated telephone inquiry line shot up to nearly 58 minutes in August of 2015.

But wait times were first flagged as an issue in 2014 when they tripled from nine minutes to 34.

Since then, there has a slight reduction during some months.

The latest figures came after an FOI request from the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Poverty reduction advocates say people on social assistance often don't have cell phones and are forced to use public phones at community agencies which may have time limits and wait lines of their own.

In 2015, a ministry spokesperson said they would strive to bring down waits to less than 10 minutes.