Passport officers warned Ottawa that a crush was coming

As the government implements measures at some Service Canada locations to clear huge backlogs of 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 remains “deeply concerned” about the provision of passport services, saying that specialized passport sites in major cities will prioritize services to those with urgent travel needs within the next 24 to 48 years. hour.

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

Gould told reporters in Ottawa that the majority of applications come from new passport holders or children, which are more complex and take longer to process.

“There’s no easy fix here,” she said. “A lot of work has been done and there is still a lot more work to be done.”

With COVID-19 restrictions lifted, Canadians are flocking to return to international travel, applying for a passport for the first time, or renewing passports that have expired during the pandemic. This has led to long lines at passport offices. In some cases the police had to be called because of disagreements.

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

Since April 1, nearly 500,000 passports have been issued.

The union, which represents more than 2,000 Service Canada employees, 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 were lifted, but also because individuals who received 10-year passports in 2013 — the first year such passports were made available — would have to renew them in 2023.

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

“They didn’t give us a clear answer as to what the plan was. There didn’t seem to be much care or attention. Not that we were fired, but it was a contemptuous atmosphere.”

The government “didn’t treat the situation seriously in any way,” said Kevin King, national president of the Union of National Employees, whose members are responsible for processing passport applications. (Warner members’ duties include passport admission 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 at this employer a year ago and the employer has said we are looking into it.”

Warner said the main topic on calls the union has received from members is concerns about service delivery. She said the suggestion to run centers 24/7 would be unfair to the public and workers, but said the union has urged the government to allow more centers with extended opening hours and on weekends. , only to hear that the government is reviewing options.

“Can we work longer? 100 percent. Can we go on the weekend? 100 percent,” she says.

The union also wants to be able to triage individuals so that seniors in line with, say, CPP or Old Age Security issues can be given priority over individuals with non-urgent passport applications. But she said that request was denied.

“They really need to judge the people they have in the department making their decisions,” Warner said. “I don’t know who is advising Secretary Gould, but it makes no sense.”

King described Gould’s announcement Thursday as “like pulling out a leaking bucket with a teaspoon.”

The government has taken steps including adding 600 additional staff and launching an appointment booking tool, but King said he has still not been given an indication of how many of the 600 passport officers will be equipped to handle complex requests. to process.

He said another 150 to 200 passport officers should be deployed across the country, and the government should also ensure that those officers are better protected. King said they are being harassed, spat at and photographed.

“It gets worse before it gets better,” King said of the backlogs.

With a view to 2023, when the first batch of 10-year passports is due to be renewed, King said: “There will be a very, very high volume peak at that point, and I’m not convinced the employer is ready to hire enough passport officers.” on-site to meet the needs of the public.”

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

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

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