P.E.I. residents struggle to apply for EI as COVID-19 claims swamp phone lines

Priscilla Handrahan says for the past month she has been trying repeatedly to get through to Service Canada to file for employment insurance. 

Handrahan, a resident care worker at Maplewood Manor in Alberton, is applying for sick benefits. She can't file her claim online, as she has to speak with an agent, but she can't get through on the phone, and the COVID-19 pandemic has closed her local Service Canada office.

"I've been trying since March 7. Like I said my phone is my lifeline. It's there just ringing and ringing and after probably an hour it will say connection failed," said Handrahan.  

"So, I call again and it's the same thing. I set my alarm and get up in the middle of the night just in case someone is working and I let it ring and let it ring.… I have absolutely no idea what to do next because I need to get a doctor's note to the EI."

Handrahan said fear is setting in. She has to live on her Canada Pension, which is $318 a month. Her bills are piling up, including rent, electricity and internet. 

Wayne Thibodeau/CBC

CBC News contacted Service Canada on Wednesday, April 1 to ask about the wait times and whether additional staff had been allocated to answer the calls. In an email, the government office said it is "currently receiving a high volume of requests" from the media but would respond as soon as possible. 

To date, CBC News has not received a response.

In one week last month, half a million Canadians applied for employment insurance, compared to just 27,000 for the same week last year, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Many more are expected to make claims this week.

'Virtually impossible to reach out'

Egmont MP Bobby Morrissey said Handrahan is not alone. His office is fielding dozens of calls daily. Morrissey said he'd like Service Canada to have local agents answer the calls, to reduce the backlog of calls going to the national call centre.

Submitted by Bobby Morrissey

"It's virtually impossible to reach out to Service Canada at a time when Service Canada is really needed," said Morrissey. 

"I know the problems my staff are facing. We're facing the same in trying to reach out to Service Canada on behalf of constituents to get their issues resolved."  

Morrissey said he has contacted his federal Liberal counterparts in hopes of coming up with a solution. He said the problems Islanders are having getting through to Service Canada are leading to frustration and hardship.  

'This is simply wrong' 

"I've had constituents who were dependent on a sick EI claim and that requires validation and documentation, and they have not received a payment from EI in a couple of months. This is simply wrong."  

Submitted by Pam Corcoran

Pam Corcoran of Woodstock is also trying to reach out to Service Canada. She also has a sick claim, so she too needs to speak to an agent. 

Corcoran works at a call centre. She said she's immune compromised so her family doctor put her off work because of COVID-19.

Her stress level, she said, is going through the roof. 

"We tried and we tried and we tried and we tried pretty well all day," said Corcoran.

"We were on hold so long that the handset went dead." 

'I need my EI'

Alfred Culleton of Elmsdale said he's been trying for three weeks to reach Service Canada without any luck.

"I have two phones going at the same time. I've been trying. My wife's been trying," said Culleton, adding that he gets in the queue but then the call gets cut off.

Wayne Thibodeau/CBC

Culleton said it's having an impact on his finances.

"I got to rely a lot on my family for the time being to borrow money from them until everything gets set up," he said. 

"I'm sure they don't have a lot of money either but we just have to get by. Fortunately, my wife she's still on EI right now, but that will be running out soon." 

Handrahan doesn't know what the solution is, but she said the federal government needs to be able to find a way to get these calls answered.  

"I know they are swamped and I know they have their work cut out for them and I do feel bad for them, but where does it leave the small people?" she said.

"I don't know. I don't know how we are going to fix this. I need my EI."

COVID-19: What you need to know

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

Health Canada has built a self-assessment tool.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call 811. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested. A health professional at 811 will give you advice and instructions.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Clean regularly touched surfaces regularly.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

More COVID-19 stories from CBC P.E.I.