COVID-19: Unsung heroes

June 04, 2020
Barbara Cretzman.
Barbara Cretzman returned to a job she loved just one year after she retired because she believes in the mandate of the department and knew they could use her help to get the Canada Emergency Response Benefits out to Canadians. Photo: Dave Chan

Barbara Cretzman is back at work at Employment and Social Development Canada, just one year after retiring. When Sage interviewed her in late April, she had been working 17- and 18-hour days, with light days being “just 12 to 13 hours” and she hadn’t had a day off in five weeks.

The IT specialist said she cried for four months before she retired in February 2019 because she loved her job and her co-workers — even after 37 years. No surprise then that she’s now back at work at one of the departments at the epicentre of the crisis, putting in long hours to help Canadians who are without work because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Cretzman is one of many retired public servants who volunteered to go back to work at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) to help roll out the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). And she’d be working for free if it were allowed.

“I love the mandate of the department,” says the former executive director of end-user services at ESDC. “So when my [former assistant deputy minister] called and asked if I would help, I said ‘of course.’ I would have done anything. I just like to work.”

She knew getting the new benefit in the hands of Canadians who needed it would be a “monumental task” and she loves “a crisis because that’s when people work together and great things get done.

“I just knew it was the right thing to do,” she says.

An operational wizard from the information technology (IT) world, she’s been making sure employees get set up to work from home to answer Canadians’ calls and process their applications.

“I’m co-ordinating from behind the scenes,” she says. “I’m involved in ensuring that employees who are critical to the delivery of payments to Canadians are able to do their jobs.”

Cretzman’s former co-worker, Lorne Sundby, also returned to work, a little more than eight weeks after he retired. From his home in Edmonton, he’s working 10- to 12-hour days in crisis management within ESDC’s IT department.

“I reached out to my former boss [at the same time] he was pondering reaching out to me,” Sundby says. “I knew what was happening and I was a senior officer in the department for a long time and understand the policies and priorities. It wasn’t hard to figure out that ESDC was going to be at the centre of this.”

He’s also being paid, but said pay wasn’t really a consideration. In their 30-minute call to discuss his return, they talked about remuneration for one second, he says. He’s not making his old salary, and that’s fine with him.

“You don’t work in one place for 35 years without having good reasons for it,” he says. “You enjoy the appreciation of what you contribute.”

He notes that it’s not as though he’s missing out on anything glamorous in his retired life at the moment.

“What would I be doing otherwise?” he says. “Driving my wife crazy, probably. I’d just be getting in people’s way. I wouldn’t be doing very much, anyway, and I think this is a pretty good use of my time.”

It’s this kind of commitment, among employees and former employees, that makes Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough “super-proud.” And she’s especially happy that, as a result, six million Canadians started receiving benefits from a program that didn’t exist three-and-a-half weeks earlier.

“I have an incredible respect for public servants,” Qualtrough, a former lawyer, says. “I think it’s a noble pursuit. [They] are worried about their fellow citizens and they want to do right. It gives you goosebumps. I’m proud of the whole team and everybody else who’s worked with us.”

In addition to rolling out the new CERB benefit, her department is responsible for Employment Insurance (EI), Service Canada, the website and the 1-800-O-Canada information line, whose lines lit up as soon as the planned benefits were announced.

“We’re the face of the government in a lot of real ways for Canadians, so we knew early on the pivotal role ESDC would have as we navigated both the public health crisis, but also the post-public health crisis as we return to normalcy,” Qualtrough says. “It was a daunting task from the beginning because we also had concerns to ensure the safety of the people who were going to do all this for us.”

“I love the mandate of the department… So when my [former assistant deputy minister] called and asked if I would help, I said ‘of course.’ I would have done anything. I just like to work.”

ESDC officials knew the week of March 9 that their department would be responsible for rolling out the benefits to those who’d lost their jobs due to COVID-19, which were initially flowing through the EI system. That week, the EI volumes were standard — 7,000 to 9,000 applications per day. On the first day Canadians could apply for the new benefits, the system received 71,000 applications. A senior official on the operations side said he had a big “gulp” when he saw that number and the magnitude of the challenge he was facing. It was nearly twice as many as the previous record of 38,000 that came during the global financial crisis in 2008.

The second day, 89,000 more applications poured in. At that point, the operational people started to ask how they could possibly keep up. Part of the system — for those who were already on EI, for example — was automated, but only about 30 per cent of those applications would have been eligible for automatic processing. The procedure for new EI applicants is entirely manual, with checks of employment history and dates of employment and the standard turnaround from the date of application to the time Canadians receive their benefits is 28 days. As the minister says “there’s a lot of heavy lifting in the processing of EI claims.”

It was clear that manual processing wasn’t going to be sustainable so they had to do away with the existing eligibility criteria, especially when even those not eligible for EI were admitted into the program.

They quickly pivoted to redeploy employees who were less busy as a result of coronavirus — 13,000 staff members from the Passport Canada office moved over to help process claims — and they welcomed back retirees such as Cretzman and Sundby. The department needed the “techno-brains” from the IT team to come up with ways of “kind of tricking the existing system into an automated response to these millions of applications that were coming in,” Qualtrough says.

The idea of using Social Insurance Numbers came up as a way to track the benefits and then ESDC’s IT people suggested running the whole program through the Canada Revenue Agency’s online system. CRA’s involvement, Qualtrough says, has also been nothing short of exemplary.

“What would I be doing otherwise? Driving my wife crazy, probably. I’d just be getting in people’s way. I wouldn’t be doing very much, anyway, and I think this is a pretty good use of my time.”

Her senior official said if he’d been asked before the emergency to set up a completely new benefit from the IT side of things, he would have said a “really optimistic” timeline would have been 12 months. Instead, his team did it within two weeks.

“There was some really creative thinking done to funnel EI-eligible Canadians and non-EI-eligible Canadians at the back end, but look like a one-stop shop at the front end,” Qualtrough says. “All of those plans rather efficiently kicked into place. We rolled up our sleeves and every single day touched base between myself and my co-ministers at ESDC and my senior officials and we just very methodically got busy.”

Qualtrough, who was putting in 16-hour days because she’s been in isolation in her riding in Vancouver, but starts her Ottawa meetings at 5 a.m. Pacific time, said it was a daunting task, but one that had inherent rewards.

“It was very serious work, but it was also exciting to know that within our own department there were so many things we could do to help people. In [a few] weeks, we changed the system two or three times to make it the best we could in the circumstances. If something’s not working, you stop doing it and try something else.”


This article appeared in the spring 2020 issue of our in-house magazine, Sage. Please download the full issue and peruse our back issues!