Trade unions called on Ottawa to increase staffing before a passport delay

Written by Javed Iqbal

People are queuing outside a passport office in Montreal on June 22nd.Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press

Trade unions representing workers at Passport Canada and Service Canada centers across the country say they are asking the federal government to increase staff in anticipation of a summer increase in passport applications and renewals, which has now become a reality, prompting passport offices to to be overwhelmed.

“It’s a disaster. Our workers are being verbally harassed and psychologically abused by angry crowds. I think this increase was completely predictable,” said Kevin King, national president of the Union of National Employees, who represents about 800 passport officers and is part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

“We knew there would be significant pressure on resources that we did not have. So already over a year ago, we started demanding that the employer employ more passport officers. ”

Canadians are now experiencing that the rush of applications has extended the waiting times for passport service greatly at the exact time when many of them are preparing to travel they had postponed earlier in the pandemic. Across the country, frustration is reaching a boiling point as potential travelers camp at passport offices overnight in hopes of being first in line to check their applications. In Montreal this week, police were called as temperament flared up over long waits and queue-breakers at a passport office.

The passion failure is a result of systemic and behavioral factors.

In the first year of the pandemic, between On April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, there were only 363,000 passport applications, according to data provided by Employment and Social Development Canada. The following year, the number rose to 1,273,000.

But in April 2022, with pandemic restrictions on the decline, the number of passport applications began to increase. In the weeks since April 1 this year, the government has already received just under half of the past year’s total number: 542,000 applications, according to EDSC data.

“Only 20 percent of normal passport volume was received in the first two years of the pandemic,” according to a briefing provided by ESDC.

The number of Canadians traveling abroad has increased significantly since last spring. The latest data from Statistics Canada shows that the number of flights returning from Canadians rose to 549,300 in March. 2022, from just 18,900 in the same month last year, when most of the country was still under severe pandemic restrictions.

And the figure in March 2022 does not even reflect the recent easing of travel restrictions. The United States only dropped the test requirements for international visitors two weeks ago, while Canada eased the test requirements for incoming and returning travelers in late April.

“It seems like people are letting their passports expire during the pandemic, and then all of a sudden you got the southern border reopened, the test requirements were lifted, and all these people wanted to travel,” said Mr. King.

What exacerbates the backlog is the fact that many Canadians who applied for 10-year passports when the documents were first introduced in 2013 are facing impending expiration dates. (Before that, the passport was valid for five years.) Most countries require a passport valid for at least six months for international travel.

“We had meetings with the employer last year and asked them what the plan would be with the 10-year renewal of passports. We asked them if they would increase the number of sites or extend the opening hours. And there really was no plan presented to us. , ”Said Crystal Warner, national executive vice president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, which represents Service Canada workers.

Dozens of people waited overnight outside a Montreal passport office hoping to get a deal, and some say they expect to spend another night outside. In Toronto, the process was still slow, but it went faster.

The Canadian press

The process of renewing passports or applying for new passports involves two departments: Service Canada and Passport Canada. Employees of both departments are employees of ESDC Canada, a federal ministry. There are only 36 Passport Canada offices across the country, but Service Canada has access point counters at more than 300 centers.

According to Ms Warner, service Canada officers can handle passport applications, but the actual control, production and printing of passports is performed by designated passport officers at Passport Canada. Part of the problem right now, according to both union leaders, is that there are not enough passport officers. Mr. King said his union is asking for 400 of those to be employed.

In a statement, the ESDC said there were 1,500 employees across Service Canada and Passport Canada locations before the pandemic, and that the government hired 600 additional workers in early 2022 specifically for passport processing. The ministry said it plans to start hiring another 600 staff in the coming weeks, also for passport processing. The declaration did not specify whether “passport processing” means ingestion or whether it refers to control and production.

Both union leaders said they do not know where the 600 new employees that ESDC said they hired in early 2022 are now working. “Are they just extra front-line staff to help with the recording? If so, what specific offices?” asked Mr. King. “We need national passport officers with at least 12 weeks of training to handle these very secure travel documents.”

The government has implemented an estimated waiting time system on ESDC’s website. Now, before arriving at a passport office, an applicant can see how long they have to wait to talk to a passport officer. As of Wednesday morning, the waiting time at a number of passport locations in Toronto and Ottawa was about six to seven hours.

The fact that many Canadians chose to submit their passport renewal documents during the pandemic has also contributed to long waits, according to Ms. Warner. “Because people have not received an answer, they have chosen to go to places in person,” she said.

As to whether teleworking and vaccine mandates have contributed to inefficiency in the system, both the unions and the government say these factors have been negligible. According to the ESDC, just 299 employees – or about 1 percent of the ministry’s workforce – were put on unpaid leave because they were unvaccinated.

The Union of National Employees estimates that these backlogs will continue over the next six months as new staff begin training and the amount of passport renewals continues to pile up ahead of the first 10-year passport renewal period.

“This is not just the story of the week. It will keep getting worse,” Mr. King said.

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Javed Iqbal

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