(The Canadian Press)

Tax collectors, auditors to help field ‘historic’ numbers of benefit-seeking callers

‘If you work for CRA, people think we are just there to take money from your pockets.’

Canada Revenue Agency employees know a giant spotlight will be pointed at them come Monday, when they begin the monumental task of delivering federal benefits meant to mitigate the disastrous economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you work for CRA, people think we are just there to take money from your pockets,” said Marc Briere, national president of the Union of Taxation Employees, which represents most CRA workers.

“People tend to forget that we administer a lot of benefits,” Briere said in an interview.

Beginning April 6, the agency will field calls from Canadians about billions of dollars in emergency benefits that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called “the biggest economic measures in our lifetimes to defeat a threat to our health.”

Normally at tax time the agency has between 3,000 and 4,000 employees working the phones at call centres across the country. But this is no normal year.

More than 1,000 CRA employees have volunteered to bolster those numbers and take calls from an estimated 300,000 Canadians per day who are expected to inquire about the government’s $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Those calls will be fielded from the kitchens, living rooms and home offices of the agency’s employees, who have, like so many Canadians, been forced to work from home to try to lessen the spreading of the novel coronavirus.

The department is scrambling to equip thousands of employees with laptops and other equipment they need to work from home, and train some, many of whom have never worked in a call centre.

“But at the same time it’s an opportunity to shine and to demonstrate that the work we do is important and we’re there for the population,” said Briere.

“The spotlight has never been put as much as it is now on delivering benefits.”

Left on the sidelines is the work that the tax department is perhaps better known for: verifying and collecting taxes.

Tax audits and debt collections have been limited “until further notice,” according to a statement on the agency’s website, as the government shifts its focus to helping Canadians whose livelihoods have all but vanished under measures imposed to slow COVID-19 infection rates.

The dramatic shift in work is also happening in other departments.

Passport Canada’s physical offices are closed with passport applications being accepted online while many of the agency’s staff are reassigned to field record numbers of calls at Service Canada about employment-insurance benefits.

Global Affairs Canada, which normally has a handful of staff taking calls from Canadians in other countries, has shifted policy and other employees to its emergency lines. Now, there are between 250 and 300 people working at the call centre, taking calls from Canadians stranded abroad, said the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Departments are making changes on the fly, transferring employees with similar skills and experience with specific computer systems and protocols to where they are needed most, said PSAC national president Chris Aylward.

“People are being reassigned to the places that make the most sense,” said Aylward.

Prior to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the union’s relationship with the government was strained. PSAC, which represents about 140,000 federal employees, was holding strike votes across the country earlier this year over issues that included pay and compensation for workers affected by the failed Phoenix pay system.

All that changed as the pandemic began to be felt in Canada. The strike votes are suspended indefinitely. Work to reduce the massive backlog of pay issues created by Phoenix is now on the backburner, said Aylward.

Efforts to replace Phoenix with another electronic pay system, however, are continuing, said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents government scientists, health workers and technology specialists.

That, despite those IT specialists working “flat out” to ensure a near seamless transition by tens of thousands of government employees to working from home, said Daviau.

Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press

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