(The Canadian Press)

(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

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team and Victoria police executed a high-risk warrant arrest on Jan. 22. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria police arrest man wanted on multiple warrants

Warrants include drug trafficking, theft and possession of firearms

A worker covers up racist graffiti along the West Shore Parkway. (Courtesy of Anna Young)
RCMP investigating racist graffiti spotted off West Shore Parkway

Hateful vandalism is rare, says Langford bylaw enforcement

The District of Saanich’s communications team decided to take part in a viral trend on Thursday and photoshopped U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders into a staff meeting photo. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Bernie Sanders makes guest appearance at Saanich staff meeting

Sidney firefighters jump on viral trend of photoshopped U.S. senator

Crystal Pool and Fitness Centre will reopen Feb. 1 after a nearly 10-month closure to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Crystal Pool and Fitness Centre gears up for safe reopening in Victoria

Recreation facility opens Feb. 1 with reservation system to prevent crowding

Coun. Jack McClintock said he would have voted for a proposed statutory holiday recognizing residential school survivors if he had had all of the information. (Black Press Media File)
North Saanich split over statutory holiday recognizing residential school survivors

Legislation would recognize Sept. 30 as National Day of Truth and Reconciliation

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

Angela Waldick is the new team photographer for the Nanaimo NightOwls. (Nanaimo NightOwls photo)
Half-blind photographer will help new Island baseball team look picture-perfect

Nanaimo NightOwls say legally blind team photographer is making history

School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)
Prince George school district settles with sexual abuse victim

Terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit

Surrey provincial court. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
New COVID-19 protocols set for provincial courthouses

The new rules were issued on Jan. 21, and took effect immediately

Dog owners, from left, Marlyn Briggs with Nayla, Marjory Sutherland with Effie and Mick, and Christina Godbolt with Conon walk their pets frequently at the Chemainus Ball Park but are growing increasingly concerned about drugs being found discarded in the area. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Puppy rushed to emergency 3 times after ingesting drugs in Chemainus public spaces

Dog owners walking in Chemainus parks urged to take caution

Police in Vancouver looking for male suspect who allegedly spat and attacked a store manager for not wearing a mask, at 7-Eleven near Alma Street and West 10th Avenue just before noon on Dec. 17, 2020. (Vancouver police handout)
VIDEO: Man spits on 7-Eleven manager over mask rule, sparking Vancouver police probe

‘Unfortunately, the store manager sustained a cut to his head during the assault’

The Vancouver-based SAR team successfully rescued two lost snowshoers off of the west side of Tim Jones Peak in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 19. (North Shore Rescue photo)
B.C.’s busiest SAR team raises alarm after 2021 begins with fatality, multiple rescues

‘People beyond ski resort areas of Seymour, Grouse, and Cypress go without cell reception,’ SAR warns

Police are searching for an alleged sex offender, Nicole Edwards, who they say has not returned to her Vancouver halfway house. (Police handout)
Police hunt for woman charged in ‘horrific’ assault who failed to return to Surrey halfway house

Call 911 immediately if you see alleged sex offender Nicole Edwards, police say

A screenshot from a local Instagram account video. The account appeared to be frequented by Mission students, and showed violent videos of students assaulting and bullying other students.
Parents, former students describe ‘culture of bullying’ in Mission school district

Nearly two dozen voices come forward speaking of abuse haunting the hallways in Mission, B.C.

Most Read