Preparing for what promises to be an extraordinarily busy tax season, the federal government is taking the unusual step of hiring a private company to answer some Canadians’ questions about pandemic benefits — a move that has one union warning about privacy concerns.
Officials with the Canada Revenue Agency insist this is a short-term initiative and that employees of the private company will only answer general questions and won’t have access to taxpayers’ personal information.
“It’s nice to say that,” said Marc Brière, president of the Union of Taxation Employees, which represents more than 28,000 CRA workers.
“I understand that these people might not have access to the employee CRA system. But what if a taxpayer, thinking they’re calling CRA, inadvertently gave confidential information to the employees of the third party? That can certainly happen. So we’re concerned with that.”
Brière said he also fears that involving a third party will create more confusion for taxpayers who are increasingly being targeted by scam artists claiming to represent the federal government.
The CRA said the company taking on the benefit inquiries is Maximus Canada and that all agents answering the calls will be based in Canada.
On its website, Maximus Canada states that it already provides health administration services in 10 of 13 Canadian provinces and territories. It’s part of a larger global firm that operates in the United States, Australia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom and generates about $2.5 billion US in revenue worldwide.
New staffers to be trained on CRA materials, procedures
The private sector staffers will be trained with Canada Revenue Agency materials and procedures but will have to refer account-specific questions to the agency’s in-house agents, CRA said.
“They will only respond to general inquiries from Canadians, and do not have any access to their personal information or CRA accounts,” said a CRA spokesperson.
It’s not clear how many people are being hired to handle the benefit questions. The CRA said the government has set an “expected service level” and Maxiumus will decide how many people it needs to meet that standard.
The contract is set to run from February to August.
“There will be no options to extend the period of the contract,” said a CRA spokesperson.
Brière said he’s been told by CRA officials that the company could hire roughly 130 people.
“We don’t think it’s respectful to our members that worked like crazy to help out the population and now they’re being told those jobs will be given to somebody else. We don’t think that’s appropriate,” he said.
Pandemic benefits complicate tax season
Those private sector staffers would be in addition to the roughly 2,000 new employees CRA is hiring the to deal with what the agency has said will be “a tax season like no other” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many Canadians and businesses have accessed newly-created pandemic benefits, which could complicate tax season.
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It’s not clear, for example, how many of the approximately 8.9 million applicants for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit realized the $2,000 per month payments are taxable and set aside money to pay those taxes.
The CRA said it has been “aggressively hiring” in-house call agents to help address the many tax questions it anticipates. It said that, by March 2021, it expects to have hired and trained about 2,000 new agents who will be able to address Canadians’ questions about their tax filings.
Call centre hours for individual inquiries will also be extended as of Feb. 27 and the agency is adding a new call-back service it said will allow callers to ask for an automated return call “when wait times reach a certain length.”