Social security tribunal short-staffed, under pressure from start: report

An outside review of the tribunal Canadians turn to when denied social security benefits appears to have been short-staffed from its inception, leading to a backlog of new cases and stressed-out, error-prone employees.

OTTAWA — An outside review of the tribunal Canadians turn to when denied social security benefits appears to have been short-staffed from its inception, leading to a backlog of new cases and stressed-out, error-prone employees.

The private consultant’s report ordered by the social security tribunal last year found the backlog in the “income security” division, which includes Canadians who were fighting to receive disability payments, stood at some 5,300 cases at this time last year.

Many of the cases had “voluminous medical documents” with “complex and involved” subjects that required extra time and expertise to review.

“Compounding the situation,” the consultants wrote, “are questions and pressures being placed upon the organization from parties, stakeholders, the media and political levels.”

The consultants predicted that one section of the tribunal could take more than three years to get through a backlog of old appeals before coming to a “steady state” — a manageable workload — without any new workers. The tribunal would need 27 more workers to get to that “steady state” within one year.

The final report from Kelly Sears Consulting Group, dated March 18, sums up the problems at the tribunal in one sentence: “The SST is concerned that it is facing a capacity issue.”

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the report through the Access to Information Act.

The tribunal said it is on the verge of getting to that “steady state” in the income security section this fall, with about 500 cases from the old system left to go through the new system.

Former employment minister Jason Kenney vowed in February that backlog of old cases would be gone by the summer.

Richard Beaulne, a spokesman for the tribunal, said extra staff, experience, and training have helped reduce the backlog. Employment and Social Development Canada has also settled some outstanding appeals, while others were dropped for circumstances beyond the tribunal’s control, such as not being able to locate an appellant who has moved.

The Conservatives created the tribunal in 2013 to hear the appeals of those arguing they had been wrongly denied employment insurance, old age security and Canada Pension Plan payments. The Tories said the move would streamline the appeals process, saving time and money.

The report suggests the government misjudged from the start just how many bodies the arm’s-length tribunal needed to operate efficiently. It also says there was a shortfall equivalent to nine full-time workers and 10 full-time members, who decide cases.

Interviews with 60 tribunal staff and members revealed concerns about quality assurance — too many errors and too much rework being done on files — and excessive micro-managing by supervisors.

“Staff have the ‘hands on’ expertise and knowledge of the processes. The risk is that ‘top-down’ imposed procedures do not reflect the reality of the work that staff must do and may actually impede productivity,” the consultants wrote in a February version of their report.

“Management should focus more on caseload management and less on the micro-management of files.”

The tribunal ordered the review more than a year ago to “identify gaps and opportunities for efficiencies,” along with setting performance and service standards, said Beaulne.

The service standards themselves come into force later this fall: 85 per cent of cases will be decided within five months of both parties confirming that they are ready to proceed.

“The tribunal has achieved significant progress since its inception and will always remain committed wherever possible to improving its services in processing appeals for Canadians,” Beaulne said.

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