OTTAWA — Service Canada employees can and should be working from home, despite the growing demand generated by financial-aid applications, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.
The federal government has announced the closure of 317 physical Service Canada centres to limit the spread of COVID-19.
"As part of the initiative of encouraging people to stay home and work from home, this is something that we realize we can and should be doing," Trudeau said during his daily briefing on the health crisis.
The government has made "significant efforts" over the last several years to make sure that all services available at Service Canada centres are also available online, he said.
"We want to make sure that Service Canada employees are continuing to work extremely hard to serve Canadians, to respond to their needs, and that's why things are going to be done online and through the phone."
The Liberals say the move, announced late Thursday night, should not affect most unemployed workers who seek employment-insurance benefits since the vast majority of applications are done online.
Trudeau added that special considerations will be given to "particularly vulnerable" people who have difficulty accessing those services.
The network of Service Canada centres, along with almost 250 more outreach centres, received about 8.4 million visits during the 12-month period between April 2018 and March 2019. The figure, noted in a recently posted evaluation of federal services, included over 1.9 million people walking in to use a self-service kiosk.
The demand on Service Canada has increased in recent days, with more than one million new applications for EI benefits arriving in just over a week as businesses close due to public-health concerns.
Approximately 1,000 workers were already redeployed to assist with EI applications. Any COVID-19-related applications that came in before the new emergency benefit was announced will be moved over to the new program, so people don't have to follow up with Service Canada.
Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos said the closure decision followed concerns about an unsafe working environment for employees.
"We've had incidences where employees of Service Canada saw their health and safety at risk," Duclos said Friday.
The union representing Service Canada employees supported the move to shut down physical centres.
"This measure will protect the public and its members from contracting COVID-19, and will not negatively impact the ability of vulnerable Canadians to receive the support they need at this critical time," Chris Aylward, Public Service Alliance of Canada national president, said in a statement.
People who cannot be accommodated online or over the phone will be given a specific appointment time and their file will be prepared in advance, the union said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2020.
—With files from Jordan Press in Ottawa
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press