Kathy Ajram: On the front lines of delivering COVID-19 financial benefits

April 20, 2020

photo of Kathy AjramIn over a decade at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), Kathy Ajram has never seen such a rapid and profound transformation in how her organization conducts its work.

Kathy is a Senior Taxpayer Services Agent at the CRA and a local Chief Steward for her union, PSAC-Union of Taxation Employees (PSAC-UTE). Usually, she spends her days supporting members of the public by helping to answer their wide-ranging tax-related questions, and her fellow union members with their workplace concerns.

Then everything changed. On March 25, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced the historic Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a $2,000 per month payment for 16 weeks available to those who have lost employment.

The CRA, which employs over 27,000 PSAC members, was given the heads up just days before it suddenly began transforming itself to handle the new emergency payments. Planning and preparation meetings were held at all hours of the day and night—and weekends too—and systems and processes were being modified by the hour.

A new computer application platform to support CERB claims—which would have usually taken months to deploy—was launched within a couple of weeks. Updated training materials were developed and disseminated to service agents. And over 7,000 PSAC members from various parts of the agency volunteered to bolster the CERB call centre, which would accept applications and provide information to the public.

In short, a massive new federal benefits program was launched in record time.

The additional twist, of course, was that most of the work in support of it would be handled away from the office in the interest of following social distancing guidelines issued by public health authorities.

For Kathy, this has meant working long hours from a small room in her home to ensure an extremely high volume of calls is answered promptly. Home renovations previously underway were quickly put on hold to preserve a quiet space and, she adds: “My spouse is not allowed in the room my workstation is in because he knows I have work to do!”

Along with thousands of other PSAC members who support the CERB—some of whom work 14 hours per day—Kathy is committed to providing the public with fast and compassionate service.

“You can hear the relief in the voice of the caller when you advise them that their application has been received and they will be receiving their payment tomorrow or within the next couple days,” she says. “It’s humbling and honouring to be able to support them in that way.”

Kathy and her colleagues at the CRA received and processed nearly 4 million applications for benefits in just the first five days after the CERB was launched on April 6.

The Agency’s virtual call centre’s hours run to 11 p.m. to ensure service is accessible from coast to coast, in contrast to the extended hours to 9 p.m. offered during tax filing season. And Kathy is constantly keeping up with the CERB’s evolution, such as the change announced on April 15 that extends benefits to part-time workers.

Moreover, Kathy handles calls about enhancements to the GST credit and the Canada Child Benefit, which also form part of the government’s support package to individuals in response to the pandemic.

Kathy is proud of her work supporting the Canadian public during these uncertain times, and she is also proud of her work as a union Chief Steward in her local. She strongly identifies with the union’s commitment to inclusivity, equality and fairness, and views it as a source of “incredible support” in the workplace, particularly in the current high-stress context.

“We are proud of the job that we do every day, and proudest when we can make a positive difference in the life of anyone who needs it.”

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