(Photo: Josée Lebrun – CSO, Marie-Joelle Lachance-student, Benjamin Lauzon-CSO, Lorraine Potvin,-CSO, Lorraine Boyce-CSO and Julie Girard from passports)
What a beautiful morning! it was my first thought when I woke up after good night sleep.
After more than a week of working as a front-line Citizen Service Officer for Service Canada, sleep was not only a necessity but a salvation.
It is Saturday, March 21, 2020. I will try to share with you the reality of working at front-line. This unprecedented worldwide crisis has really started to affect all of us.
My colleagues and I are all deemed critical and to provide services to the population. The services we deliver are Employment Insurance, pensions, Social Insurance Numbers and many other programs that involve payable benefits to the population. Therefore, with the COVID-19 pandemic, you can imagine that since March 12, our working conditions have drastically changed. We are seeing an increase of clients coming through the door with fears, anxieties and the expectation that we will be there to help. We try everything we can to achieve that.
Since we heard about the COVID-19 crisis, which was the end of February, I started enquiries to our employer about safety equipment available like protective gloves, sanitizer and cleaning swipes to disinfect the equipment used by the clients in our self-help zone. However, my concerns were not taken seriously at that time. Even then, we had few supplies available to provide the basic protection from infection or to reduce the risk for the clients. A colleague went to get her own supplies, and I understand why, but to me it is the responsibility of our employer to provide this equipment. This motivated me to put additional pressure on the employer to get what we needed.
The first day when we were informed of the coming measures to close businesses, March 13, that was when the reality hit us hard at work.
All of us (Citizen Service Officers) were very worried, fearful and felt that our safety was at risk. Some colleagues were sent home due to health conditions that made them vulnerable to the virus, some had children and no daycare or babysitting available and some just refused to work. Because of this, 5 of the 9 agents are present in the office.
March 18, we finally got some of the basic safety equipment that we requested. This came after many meetings and emails with the employer.
We when first heard about COVID-19, we all felt that our employer did not really care or that they could not see the urgency to get organized.
If I compare what they are doing now for us since before March 13, it is like night and day! We feel supported by our supervisors and our Director who happens to work in our office.
What we are all experiencing right now has never happened. We, as staff, are constantly adapting to changes, trying to make things work in the safest environment possible. We evaluate the situation every day to ensure our safety while we still serve Canadians.
Our new protocols include provisions to protect the public and ourselves. We have a triage is done at the door of our office to ensure that clients have no symptoms of cold, flu, and fever and inquire to see if they have recently travelled. We deal with very frustrated clients due to the difficulties they encountered to apply for EI or to be able to speak to an agent at the call center. We see people who never were on EI, are lost not knowing what to do. We see clients who are not eligible for EI and do not know how to get help.
We feel the panic and the fear of our clients; we realize that those emotions tend to change nice people into not nice ones.
We understand it. However, we have our limits too. Therefore, to get through the day, our team of Citizen Service Officers’ stick together, help each other, talk to each other, cry together sometimes, laugh together, and consult each other. We now have the full support from our employer who can see how hard our job is every day.
Critical services are reconsidered and next week, we will have almost no interviews for services done in the office.
I am not sure of how the public will react to reducing in-person service. We have concerns and requested that a security guard to help us in case of an escalation of violence, which we hope will never happens.
The worst, we fear, is yet to come. How fast will the Government be able to process 500,000 EI applications, which they received only last week? Not to mention the claims that are in processing from before the crisis. The questions that all the clients have are, when will I get money? How long will it take? How will I pay my bills?
We all wish that we could answer those questions with certainty, but we cannot.
So, what would we need to help us? I am not sure at this point.
All along this journey, I have shared my experience to friends from the union or not. I want to let you all know how your support is appreciated. It helps me and the team get back on our feet when we feel more vulnerable. Thank you so much for caring and for your solidarity.
Your sister and a friend,