CHARLOTTETOWN – A letter penned by federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley to The Guardian in November has sparked national controversy with employment insurance workers now calling for an apology and her resignation.
A mass grievance has been filed against the minister by about 2,500 EI workers. They say Finley's comments in the letter blame employees working on EI claims for the current processing backlog that has left thousands of Canadians waiting months for their employment insurance cheques.
Finley's letter was emailed to The Guardian after an article appeared in the paper a few days before in which Malpeque MP Wayne Easter was critical of the department's plans to shut down the EI processing centre in Montague, cutting 30 jobs.
In her response letter, published Nov. 21, 2011, Finley wrote she found it is 'most interesting' that "in the month that we announced we will be overhauling and improving EI processing to better serve Canadians – before any changes were introduced – productivity and performance went from being on par with last year's performance at this time to the worst in five years."
Workers were shocked to see this, interpreting it as the minister accusing them of causing the current extended backlogs after hearing about the layoffs.
"They were just devastated. Because even though they received this news that the (Montague) office was closing, they went right back to work," said Donna MacDonald, vice-president for the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union for the P.E.I. region, which represents EI workers.
"Their main focus is getting people paid. They were coming in early and working through their breaks in order to get as many people paid as possible."
Finley's letter went viral after it was published, with workers forwarding copies of it to each other and to their counterparts across the country.
"All of the people in EI processing took great offense to it," MacDonald said.
Employees are now concerned about their safety, with the minister squaring fault for delays on the workers' shoulders.
That's why the union's grievance wants Finley not only to apologize, but also to be fired.
"She is inciting the public to think we're not doing our job. So they're coming in, they're angry, they're hungry, they're not paying their bills and they think we're not working. So there's a health and safety concern – and this is before the really massive backlog even started," MacDonald said.
Cases of violence involving EI claimants turning to desperate measures after being forced to wait months for their EI benefits have fueled the employees' fears.
A Kensington man, frustrated over his extended wait, grabbed a gun and threatened people in his home before locking himself in a bedroom, threatening harm against himself. In Winnipeg, a man who was irate at the handling of his claim scaled a counter and lunged at an employee, who suffered injuries.
The Globe and Mail published figures Friday showing 360,481 Canadians were waiting for their claims to be processed in October 2011, which is twice as many as in October 2007. These numbers continue to climb.