‘Virtually impossible’ to reach B.C. income assistance office: advocates

Trying to contact income assistance offices in B.C. is an exercise in frustration for clients and those trying to help them, say advocates working with social service clients.

“There have been constant problems getting through on the 1-866 number and, in the past month, it has been virtually impossible,” said Kelly Newhook, Together Against Poverty Society executive director. “They put people on hold for an hour or more and then they cut people off.”

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The story is repeated by people working on poverty issues from around B.C, Newhook said.

The same number is the main contact point for all income assistance clients in the province.

It is an impossible situation for people who are already cash-strapped and need to be out looking for work, Newhook said.

“TAPS can’t get a response from the ministry. We are not even getting call backs from supervisors, and we are helping 10 to 15 people a day,” she said.

In 2012-13, the B.C. ombudsperson opened more files on complaints about the Social Development Ministry than on any other area of the government, according to its annual report.

Michelle Mungall, NDP social development critic, said all MLAs receive complaints about not being able to contact the ministry, and many offer the use of their community office phone so people can wait on hold.

It is particularly tough for those with cellphones and a defined number of minutes, Mungall said.

“Then they can’t make another call for a month,” she said. “The question is, what is the minister doing?”

An emailed statement from a ministry spokesperson said there was a problem, but it has been fixed.

“The ministry recently experienced temporary network connectivity issues that resulted in longer than normal phone wait times including call interruptions/disconnection,” he said.

“This issue was addressed with utmost urgency and strategies have been put in place in order to mitigate any future impact to service.”

The ministry recognizes that, at times, call volumes cause delays, he said. New contact centre staff are being hired and trained.

Applications for income and disability assistance can be made online, he said. The website is www.iaselfserve.gov.bc.ca.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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