Passport workers warned Ottawa that a crush was coming

As the government implements measures in some Service Canada locations to alleviate massive delays in passport applications, unions representing federal workers say Ottawa has ignored their suggestions to reduce delays.

Social Development Minister Karina Gould said in a statement on Thursday that she remained “deeply concerned” about the delivery of passport services and said specialized passport websites in major cities would prioritize serving individuals with urgent travel needs in cities. next 24 to 48 hours.

She said screening work began earlier this week in Montreal, then extended to Toronto and will begin in Vancouver on Monday. Gould said individuals with long-term travel plans will be referred to other Service Canada centers.

Gould told reporters in Ottawa that most applications are for first-time passport holders or children, which are more complex and require more time to process.

“There is no easy solution here,” she said. “There is a lot of work that has been done and there is a lot more work that needs to be done.”

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Canadians are returning to international travel in droves, applying for a passport for the first time or renewing passports that have expired during the pandemic. This caused long lines at passport offices. In some cases, the police had to be called due to fights.

The number of passports issued has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. Service Canada issued 363,000 passports between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, followed by over 1.2 million between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.

Nearly 500,000 passports have been issued since April 1.

The union representing more than 2,000 Service Canada workers said it raised concerns with the government last year about an expected increase in passport applications.

The union warned that there would be an influx as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, but also because individuals who received a 10-year passport in 2013 – the first year these passports were made available – would need to renew them in 2023. .

“It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was about to happen, so we asked for planning: are we going to form a team? Open alternative workplaces? Will you train people?” said Crystal Warner, national executive vice president of the Employment and Immigration Union of Canada.

“They didn’t give us a clear answer as to what the plan was. There didn’t seem to be much concern or consideration. Not that we were let go, but it was kind of a dismissive vibe.”

The government “wasn’t taking the situation seriously,” said Kevin King, national president of the National Employees Union, whose members are responsible for processing passport applications. (Warner member duties include passport entry at Service Canada centers.)

“The problem is we don’t have enough passport officers in the office,” King said. “We identified a lack of passport officers a year ago for this employer, and the employer said we are investigating this.”

Warner said the number one topic in calls the union has received from members is concern about service delivery. She said the suggestion that centers operate 24/7 would be unfair to the public and workers, but said the union has urged the government to allow more centers to operate extended hours and weekends. week, only to be informed that the government is reviewing options.

“Can we do extended hours? 100 percent. Could we do weekends? 100%,” she said.

The union also wants to be able to screen individuals so that seniors aligned with CPP or Old Age Security issues, for example, can be given priority over individuals with non-urgent passport applications. But she said the request was rejected.

“They really need to review the people they have in the department to make their decisions,” Warner said. “I don’t know who is advising Minister Gould, but it’s no use.”

King described Gould’s announcement on Thursday as “like rescuing a leaky bucket with a teaspoon.”

The government has taken steps, including adding an additional 600 staff and launching an appointment scheduling tool, but King said he has yet to receive any indication of how many of the 600 will be passport officers, who are equipped to process complex requests.

He said there needs to be another 150-200 passport officers spread across the country, and the government also needs to ensure that there is better protection for these officers. King said they are being harassed, spit on and photographed.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” King said of the delays.

Looking ahead to 2023, when the first batch of 10-year passports will be renewed, King said: “There will be a very, very high spike in volume at that time, and I am not convinced that the employer is ready to have enough passport officers in place. place to meet the needs of the public”.

While extra staff are welcome, Warner said they should have been added a long time ago, as onboarding requires a minimum of 12 weeks and it can take even longer for an individual to be fully trained for the job.

“The reality of this is you don’t get someone fully trained for six months,” she said.

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