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Taxpayers are spending hours on hold with the CRA — despite repeated promises of faster service

The federal government has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to improve customer service at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) — but people who regularly deal with the country’s tax collector say it hasn’t had much of an effect, with telephone wait times sometimes clocking in at more than two hours.

The union that represents CRA employees said the federal government’s decision to lay off approximately 1,800 employees in May and June has only made the situation at the agency’s call centres worse.

There’s been a spike in the number of irate callers lashing out at agents after experiencing long periods on hold, the union told CBC News.

As part of an effort to improve its service, the CRA has a feature on its website that tells taxpayers how long they can expect to wait to get through to an agent.

But a CBC News analysis of actual wait times found that people usually end up waiting much longer than the website’s estimate. A relatively simple task — like changing a name or adjusting a person’s marital status — can take up a significant part of a taxpayer’s day.

The CRA website recently suggested the wait time for a lunch-hour call to the agency to discuss a personal tax matter would be approximately eight minutes.

But when CBC News placed a call to CRA during the midday period, an automated message said the estimated wait time was “more than two hours.”

Unlike some other call centres run by banks, telecommunications companies and airlines, the CRA does not always offer a “call back” option. Taxpayers have to wait on hold as classical music plays on a loop.

Another recent call to the CRA produced a similar result. The estimated wait time for a weekday late-morning call was listed as 11 minutes on the website. Once on the phone, the caller was told it would be an hour and a half before they could speak to an agent.

‘It doesn’t make sense’

Subsequent test calls by CBC News at different times of the day over the course of a week revealed more discrepancies between the wait times listed on the CRA’s website and those callers face in reality.

Based on the CBC’s results, François Boileau, Canada’s taxpayers’ ombudsperson — an independent officer who investigates CRA service-related complaints — said Tuesday his office is launching an inquiry into the agency’s wait-time claims.

“It’s not acceptable that you have two different answers whether you type online or whether you call. It doesn’t make sense. It’s something we’ve tried ourselves. We’ve noticed it’s different and we’ll look into it,” he told CBC News.

He said unreasonable wait times are among the main sources of complaints to his office.

“It creates a whole lot of frustration, anger and resentment for Canadians and I can’t blame them,” Boileau said.

Canadian Taxpayers' Ombudsperson, François Boileau, speaks during a news conference, in Ottawa.
Canadian Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson François Boileau addresses a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 13, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The hours-long wait times are a regular feature of Kelowna, B.C. accountant Ed Mierzewski’s workday.

He said a recent call on behalf of a business client — his firm, Cleardale Accounting, works with farmers and small businesses — took more than two hours and 45 minutes.

It’s much easier to do routine transactions online — but he often has to go through the CRA call centre first to get the proper authorization to work online on his clients’ behalf.

Mierzewski said that once he gets through to an agent, he’s sometimes punted to another one who has more specialized training on business account matters — a chain of events that only slows the process down further.

In the 2022 fall economic statement, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland allocated $400 million to the CRA to improve customer service.

Freeland’s document said the money was to “support call centre operations in the face of projected call volumes that are expected to remain above pre-pandemic levels.”

‘Banging my head against a wall’

The money was meant to support the CRA’s service standard of answering 65 per cent of calls within 15 minutes or less of a caller opting to speak with an agent.

Mierzewski said he’s never had a call answered that quickly.

“Most of the time there’s these really long wait times. And now some of the agents are taking calls on a cell phone — I’ve had a significant number of call drops,” Mierzewski said.

“I’m left banging my head against a wall. They’re not running their operation properly, at all.

“They’re causing a lot of problems for me and my clients. Are they overloaded? Do they just not know what they’re doing? It’s absolutely not a smooth process and I don’t know why, at the supervisory level, this type of thing is tolerated.”

Mierzewski said the CRA may be trying to do too much.

The agency has its usual tax collecting responsibilities but it’s also been saddled with administering other government programs like the new Canada Dental Benefit, various COVID-19 initiatives, the carbon tax rebate (the climate action incentive payment) and GST/HST rebates for low-income Canadians.

He said he believes the solution isn’t to hire more workers but to reduce the workload by doing fewer audits.

Marc Brière, president of the Union of Taxation Employees, said the wait times are “unacceptable.”

“It shouldn’t take that long to get through to an agent of the CRA, that’s for sure,” he said. “Close to 1,800 people were let go in May and June. We condemn that decision — I think it was a mistake.”

The CRA has started to rehire about 160 people, Brière said.

“If people are waiting two hours on the line — that’s not enough people. They will need to hire more people. I don’t understand why they let go of so many people only to rehire them a month later,” he said.

Marc Brière, National President of the Union of Taxation Employees, participates in a news conference.
Marc Brière, national president of the Union of Taxation Employees, says recent CRA layoffs could be causing elevated wait times at call centres. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Brière said the CRA can handle everything the government wants it to do if there are enough people on staff.

“When you let go of close to 1,800 people, here’s what happens. It’s a domino effect and I’m not surprised,” he said.

“My message to the government is, do what you’re supposed to do with the $400 million you put in the budget and diminish the wait times for taxpayers. Taxpayers will be more satisfied and obviously our members will take less heat on the lines from frustrated people.”

In a media statement, a spokesperson for the CRA said the agency is “dedicated to providing quality and timely service to Canadians, including in our phone contact centres.”

“However, service demands do fluctuate, and at times callers experience higher than normal wait times,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the CRA has extended call centre hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., is introducing online self-service options to CRA’s My Account and is “continually updating and simplifying our website so that Canadians can find answers to their tax questions independently.”

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) headquarters Connaught Building is pictured in Ottawa.
The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) headquarters Connaught Building in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The spokesperson also pointed to an online chat feature that will provide an alternative to calling the CRA for some non-personal inquiries.

But that chat service is down right now and is not expected to return to service until August 21.

As for the layoffs, the spokesperson said the CRA “hired a significant number of temporary contact centre agents” during the pandemic to administer special programs such as supports for businesses.

“As these temporary programs have ended for the most part, the CRA reduced in May and June 2023 the complement of fixed-term employees in its contact centres,” the spokesperson said.

“When service needs increase, the CRA does its best to rehire experienced, previously trained contact centre service representatives.”

Boileau said it’s clear the status quo cannot stand.

“When you call, you expect some level of customer service and the right answers,” he said.

He said a callback feature, while costly to implement, might be the solution.

“What is the cost of not doing it right now? What is the cost for all those Canadians who are waiting? Not everyone has the time or energy or the battery power to wait for two, three, four, five hours.”

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