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Unions urged Ottawa to boost staffing before passport backlog

People line up outside a passport office in Montreal on June 22.Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press

Unions that represent workers at Passport Canada and Service Canada centers across the country say they asked the federal government to beef up staffing in anticipation of a summer surge in passport applications and renewals that has now materialized, causing passport offices to become overwhelmed.

“It is a disaster. Our workers are getting verbally harassed and psychologically abused by angry crowds. I believe this surge was totally predictable, ”said Kevin King, national president of the Union of National Employees, which represents about 800 passport officers and is part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

“We knew that there would be significant pressure on resources that we didn’t have. So even over a year ago, we started demanding that the employer hire more passport officers. ”

Canadians are now finding that the rush of applications has greatly extended wait times for passport service at the precise moment when many of them are preparing to embark on travel they had postponed earlier in the pandemic. Across the country, frustration is reaching a boiling point as would-be travelers camp out at passport offices overnight, hoping to be first in line to check on their applications. In Montreal this week, police were called in as tempers flared over lengthy waits and queue-cutters at one passport location.

The passport fiasco is a result of systemic and behavioral factors.

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

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

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

The number of Canadians traveling abroad has increased significantly since last spring. The most recent data from Statistics Canada show that the number of return air trips by 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 stringent pandemic restrictions.

And that March, 2022, number doesn’t even reflect the latest easing of travel restrictions. The United States only dropped testing requirements for international visitors two weeks ago, while Canada eased testing requirements for inbound and returning travelers in late April.

“It appears that people let their passports expire during the pandemic, and then you had the southern border suddenly reopening, testing requirements lifted, and all these people wanting to travel,” Mr. King said.

Compounding 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 expiry dates. (Before then, the passport validity period was five years.) Most countries require at least six months validity on a passport for international travel.

“We were having meetings with the employer last year asking them what the plan would be with the 10-year passport renewal surge. We asked them if they were going to increase the number of sites, or extend hours. And there really wasn’t a plan presented to us, ”said Crystal Warner, national executive vice president at the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, which represents Service Canada workers.

Dozens of people waited overnight outside a Montreal passport office in the hopes of getting an appointment and some say they expect to spend another night outside. In Toronto the process was still slow but moving more quickly.

The Canadian Press

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

Service Canada officers, according to Ms. Warner, can handle passport application intake, but the actual vetting, production and printing of passports is done by designated passport officers at Passport Canada. Part of the issue 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 them to be hired.

In a statement, ESDC said there were 1,500 staff members across Service Canada and Passport Canada locations before the pandemic, and that the government hired 600 additional workers in the beginning of 2022 specifically for passport processing. The ministry said it plans to begin hiring an additional 600 staff in the coming weeks, also for passport processing. The statement did not specify whether “passport processing” means intake, or whether it refers to vetting and production.

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

The government has implemented an estimated-wait-time system on ESDC’s website. Now, before arriving at a passport office, an applicant can see how long they will have to wait to speak with a passport officer. As of Wednesday morning, at a number of passport locations in Toronto and Ottawa, wait times were roughly six to seven hours.

The fact that many Canadians opted to mail in their passport renewal documents during the pandemic has also contributed to long wait times, according to Ms. Warner. “Because people haven’t gotten a response, they’ve opted to go to in-person locations,” she said.

As to whether remote work and vaccine mandates have contributed to inefficiency in the system, both the unions and the government say those factors have been negligible. According to ESDC, just 299 employees – or about 1 per cent 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 volume 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’s going to continue getting worse, ”Mr. King said.

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