Look! Behind That Desk! Is it a Client? Is it a Temp? NO! It’s Peter Montreuil, Employment and Insurance Officer!

Of course it’s different now, documents are scanned and virtual processing ensures that claims can be processed anywhere where staff are available, without requiring the physical presence of the “paperwork”. That’s great, because it enables the program to do its job, getting money into people’s pockets as quickly as possible. But this is “now”, or at least it was “now” 5 years ago, and I have no idea nor even the requirement to know how the process works now, thankfully.

This week I am going to write about “then”, as it directly impacted on me. Yes, Loyal Reader, I am going to pull back the curtain on the fascinating life of a record clerk in the last millennium.

You must realize that my knowledge of the workings of the Canadian Unemployment Insurance program was minimal, to be charitable, before I started working there. 

The foundation of the whole thing is the Social Insurance Number, that national identification system which will merit its own column in this series. Employees had monies deducted from their pay cheque and deposited into the Unemployment Insurance fund, to be available in times of need. (This is just one part of the social services safety net that has been made available to the people of Canada.)

When someone loses their job, they have the right to file a claim for (Un) Employment Insurance, a program designed to provide temporary financial assistance to the unemployed. While it began as a program specifically directed towards those who were looking for work, over time the program morphed into a truly social support system, as it became possible for benefits to be paid to qualified applicants who are unable to work due to, inter alia; illness or injury, parenthood or the need to provide personal care to a gravely ill family member. It should be noted that any changes of this nature are most certainly not arbitrary. As the Act is the responsibility of the federal government, it can only be amended by Parliament, after following the entire legislative process applicable to any federal Acts. As an aside, as it is federal legislation, it provides the framework within which the department not only can act, but must act. That means that, as an example, if someone needs 710 hours of insured employment in order to qualify for benefits and they have only 708, we don’t have the leeway to approve their claim.

Anyway, enough of the technical background. I am going to write parts of this next part in the present tense, as it was my daily routine for many months. While the physical process has changed, the end result is still the same goal, getting money into people’s pockets. 

I was hired to work as a file clerk in an Unemployment Insurance support unit, supporting an assessment unit. The files were categorized by Social Insurance Number, and there were file racks all around the office, including work racks and storage racks, where the inactive files were stored. 

While there were a number of tasks involved in file maintenance, such as “claims preparation”, “listing”, “posting”, “quality assurance” and “transfers”, the primary assignment of a file clerk was “mail matching”. People on Unemployment Insurance often have changes in their circumstances, and they provide written information about these issues to their local office. The incoming mail is sorted by Social Insurance Number based on the terminal digit and provided to the responsible file clerk. This is sorted by sequential SIN order, put on a cart and run through the inactive file bay. The mall which has been “matched” to a file is stapled to the inside front cover of the docket and put into a work rack. 

The mail which has not been matched must then be listed in writing in numerical order and “expedited”. This simple word covers the fact that the clerk must go through the rest of the office, searching not only other racks, but work desks and other places where errant files may lurk. The process continues until the mail can be matched, which may sometimes involve the piece of mail being sent to a different office so that the claim can be actioned.

Now I have omitted much of the minutiae from this process. For example, the simple act of sorting the mail has its own complications. Remember I wrote that we use Social Insurance Numbers to sort out the claims? Well, a surprising number of people apparently have trouble either remembering theirs or writing them down properly. Transposed digits and illegible numbers are just two of the hurdles that may be faced. And don’t forget that you have only a limited amount of time to devote to each piece of mail. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the hard working file clerk himself might make a mistake while writing down the SINs on his expediting list. Even two transposed digits can provide a frisson of frustration.

Of course, I have glossed over the fact that one person can have different claims with different starting dates, and in fact on rare occasions one claim can have different starting dates. Things like this contribute to a certain amount of angst in the file clerk’s life.

I got an outstanding grounding in the Unemployment Insurance program in Canada through this particular position. I learned the value of teamwork, as I saw how everyone in the “chain” had to do their job properly in order to help the office achieve its goals.

Through the process of scanning the written documentation to send it on to the proper location, I developed the ability to “winkle out” what was really important. This acquired skill would serve me well in my work as an Employment and Insurance Officer.

Wrapping it up for this week, I was lucky to have some excellent co workers who not only gave me great training, but were eager to share their knowledge and experience with me. I was convinced that I wanted to be a part of this group, and I was lucky enough to be promoted into positions which would bring me into contact with the public on a constant basis. I couldn’t wait.

See you soon 


A confirmed Cat person, Peter dabbled with being a water boy, a paper boy and an altar boy before finally settling on a career with the Canadian federal government.  Once, in his youth, he ate a Dutch  oven full of mashed potatoes to win a 5 cent bet with his beloved sister Mary’s boyfriend. (Of course he was much younger and a nickel went a lot farther!))

He has retired to palatial “Chez Montreuil”, which he shares with his little buddy CoCo the Fashionable. He is blessed to have the beautiful Betty in his life. He is not only a plastic aircraft modeller, but a proud “rivet counter”. Military aviation and live music are among other interests of his, and he tries to get out to as many shows as he can. He will be here for your enlightenment whenever the stars align. Profile photo courtesy of Pat Blythe, caricature courtesy of Peter Mossman.

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