Union says N.S. income assistance phone system to blame for delays

·2 min read
Applicants for income assistance in Nova Scotia used to be able to fill out forms in person at a Community Services office. Because of the pandemic, people must now apply over the phone.  (Shutterstock - image credit)
Applicants for income assistance in Nova Scotia used to be able to fill out forms in person at a Community Services office. Because of the pandemic, people must now apply over the phone. (Shutterstock - image credit)

The union representing Nova Scotia government workers says a new phone intake system was causing delays for people seeking income assistance long before a spike in calls after federal pandemic aid programs ended.

Sandra Mullen, vice-president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said employees with the Department of Community Services have been quitting, partly over frustration with the new system.

"Folks would have to phone in and speak to someone and then deliver documents, and the issue is they trained a number of staff [and] some of those staff didn't stay," she said. "They became short-staffed, which is where they are right now and so there is an increased caseload workload and far too few workers to do that work."

The provincial income assistance program was bracing for an influx of calls last month after the Canada Recovery Benefit and other federal aid programs ended in October and at least one MLA's office was swamped with calls for help navigating the system.

Mullen said workers have been alerting the department to problems with the phone system ever since it was implemented earlier this year.

"They have raised their concerns to management from the start, that this program was not working, and they knew of the time lags and the inability to provide that customer service or client service that they want to do," she said.

Stress over new system, delays

In the past, people could drop by a Community Services office and get help filling out an application for income assistance, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province switched to applications by phone.

Submitted by Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union
Submitted by Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union

The province says people can still go into an office to get help, but they will still have to use the phone system.

Mullen said staff have quit for a variety of reasons, but at least some of them left due to the stress of working with a new system and delays in helping clients.

"They cannot carry on doing the work that they've been doing with the numbers of staff that are doing the work and, of course, the increased applications," she said.

The Department of Community Services declined to provide anyone for an interview.

In an email, the department said the new phone system standardizes the intake process and it has "continued to review and make improvements to the process in response [to] feedback from both staff and clients."

Adding staff, extending hours

The department also said it is adding staff and extending hours to help alleviate call wait times.

Mullen said that means delays in helping people with income assistance will continue.

"They are in the process of filling positions, but that will take some time," she said. "Also, those folks would have to be trained, so that, as well, will take time."

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