Fort Smith's ECE service centre in 2018. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The NWT’s income assistance workers have too much work and not enough support, the territory’s ombud concludes in a new report.
The report, published this week, marks the first time ombud Colette Langlois has launched an investigation into an area of the territorial government without being prompted by a specific complaint.
Langlois said she will begin such investigations to help the GNWT “get ahead of unfairness before it causes more problems for citizens, and before it results in more complaints.”
Her special report on fairness in income assistance focus mostly on the existing complaints process and the well-being of staff.
The report finds that although the complaints process recently changed, the experience of some staff is that the “quiet clients are pushed aside,” in one employee’s words, to handle the bureaucracy stemming from complaints passed to headquarters via the territory’s MLAs.
“One regional manager advised us that of the five most recent complaints to the MLA, not one of the complainants had spoken to regional office staff first, and three of the five had not even applied for the program,” Langlois wrote. “Each of those complaints, however, required a full response.”
Giving an example, Langlois said one client services officer had fixed a problem for a resident but then heard from a manager that the resident had complained to their MLA before the problem was resolved. Despite there no longer being an issue, the officer had to pause work on other people’s issues to write a briefing for management so the complaint could be addressed.
The ombud’s report made 11 recommendations to the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, which runs the NWT’s income assistance program. All 11 were accepted. Five of them related to improving the complaints process so that people with concerns can still be heard, without as much impact on other people awaiting service.
‘I have so much paper to get out’
Complaints, though, are only one aspect of an overburdened workforce, the ombud’s report suggests.
Income assistance staff help NWT residents access food, clothing, shelter and necessities like power and heat that they couldn’t otherwise afford. There are five regional service centres and 15 community service centres, and client service officers are the front-line staff helping people access benefits in person or by phone.
Langlois said her office spoke with nearly every GNWT employee whose job involves income assistance. Many staff quoted anonymously in her report say the workload is too much.
“I have had jobs in the past that were busy, but never like this,” one worker is quoted as saying. “I have never seen a job where it is the norm that there is no way you can do the job in regular hours.”
The GNWT has set its client service officers a goal of responding to all messages within two business days – a goal staff say is hard to always achieve, and can lead to some people being dealt with too hastily in order to get to other people in the line and meet the target.
A regional manager is quoted as saying: “The client service officers have approximately 100 people in their caseloads. How are they able to respond to 100 people, all within two days, especially [when] you need to process 100 applications and follow up on missing documents and returning calls?”
Later, a regional manager is again quoted as saying: “If you try to do it in, say, half an hour per file? On average, you’re already putting in 50 hours per week. But you only have 37.5 hours to accomplish that in.”
A regional manager – whether it’s the same one or not is unclear, as workers are given anonymity in the report – adds: “If they had more time, they would be able to get to know the clients.
“Some of the complaints I have had – ‘She was dismissive to me, acted like she just wanted me out of the office’ – I know the client services officer was just struggling to get to all their workload.
“The CSO is just thinking: ‘I can’t sit here and talk because I have so much paper to get out.'”
Front-line staff backed up their managers’ observations.
“I find it really overwhelming to be talking with a client, and trying to focus on them, and the phone is ringing at the same time,” one client services officer told the ombud.
“I don’t answer the phone if I am with a client in person. But then the person calling doesn’t reach me, and they will call the regional office or the MLA because they think I am not there.”
Even outside work, the officers said they are often never really off the clock.
“People don’t separate you from your job,” one worker told the ombud. “They don’t look at you after 5pm and see you as a person.”
A manager added: “You go out shopping – ‘where is my cheque?’ – you get the calls at home too. There is pressure wherever you go.”
A manager is later quoted as saying: “I have so many CSOs who consistently went above and beyond to help clients, but the good work they do never gets recognized. CSOs only get feedback about the negative comments and complaints. It affects their morale.”
ECE promises action in the next year
The ombud said staff in every region reported a workload that was too high, adding that the issue had been documented as far back as a report by the auditor general in 2013.
“Some managers said they sensed that some CSOs were burned-out and jaded, and that this might affect their client service,” Langlois wrote.
She warned that other factors affecting staff include “the emotional impact of not being able to help some clients, seeing some clients take advantage of the system, navigating personal and professional boundaries especially in small communities, feeling blamed for outcomes that were not necessarily their fault – and at the same time not feeling appreciated for their efforts – and abuse and harassment from clients.”
Langlois told ECE: “For staff to be able to meet service standards and provide people-centred service, they need to have reasonable workloads. We heard with a great deal of concern that this is not the case for most staff. The issue was not limited to one or two regions but was territory-wide.”
She asked the department to “revisit current staffing levels” to ensure there are enough people to handle regular business and complaints as well as offer adequate training and leave.
Further, the ombud recommends that ECE “develop a plan to better support staff well-being and stress management, and identify and begin implementing measures within its control as soon as possible.”
In a letter back to Langlois, minister responsible RJ Simpson said his department accepted all of the recommendations and had already begun work on some.
“ECE is currently completing a review of the income assistance program and is tasked with developing a new program for seniors and persons with disabilities,” Simpson wrote.
“It is expected that these program changes will be in place by the summer of 2023.
“As a number of the recommendations are connected to the completion of the income assistance program review, ECE can commit to addressing all recommendations by September 2023.”
The role of the ombud is relatively new in the NWT. Langlois has been taking cases since 2019, investigating complaints from people who feel unfairly treated by territorial government departments and agencies.