Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) Roundtable Report for Social Assistance Review 2011

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1 Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) Roundtable Report for Social Assistance Review 2011 Introduction This report by the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) is based on what we heard from participants at roundtable discussions held with OCASI member agencies on the Social Assistance Review. OCASI is the provincial umbrella organization for immigrant and refugee serving agencies across Ontario. It is a registered charity founded in 1978 and is governed by an elected, volunteer Board of Directors. The Council has more than 200 member agencies in communities across Ontario. OCASI has worked for more than thirty years to advance social, political and economic equity for immigrants and refugees. OCASI welcomed the Social Assistance Review with the expectation that it can make a real difference in access to income security for immigrants, refugees, racialized residents and other low-income Ontarians. While poverty is an issue for many Ontarians, the impact on racialized immigrants has been particularly severe. Recent labour market data suggests that new Canadians bore the brunt of the effects of the recession. Other research has documented the growing gap in income along racial lines, and the fact that racialized residents are over-represented among lowincome Canadians. In this context, the social assistance system is an important resource for some in the communities served by OCASI member agencies. Client s ability to navigate the complex social assistance system is a long-standing concern for frontline workers. OCASI undertook to facilitate the participation of our member agencies in this review so that the outcome would be informed by the experience of clients and community workers. The Process OCASI held two roundtable discussions in Toronto on June 20, 2011 and July 15, 2011 for workers from immigrant and refugee-serving agencies and their clients. The June discussion was held during the OCASI Professional Development Conference. Participants were frontline workers and a few program managers from immigrant and refugee-serving agencies located in communities outside Toronto. Participants at the July session were primarily frontline workers and managers from immigrant and refugee-serving organizations in Toronto as well as a few clients who were receiving social assistance. The sessions focused on the experience of immigrants and refugees in communities outside Toronto, and the experience of immigrant and refugee women. OCASI encouraged participants to approach the review questions from the perspective of identifying systemic barriers faced by immigrant, refugees and racialized groups, including the experience of women and people with disabilities from those communities. Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI)

2 At the invitation of the Commission, OCASI also co-hosted together with the United Way of Greater Toronto, Community Social Planning Council Toronto and the Daily Bread Food Bank, a roundtable discussion featuring participation by experts and community agencies. OCASI endorses the findings and recommendations of this joint report. OCASI also co-organized as a member of the Colour of Poverty Campaign, an additional roundtable session in Toronto on July 15, 2011 to focus on the experience of Ontarians of racialized background. OCASI endorses the findings and recommendations that emerged from the roundtable discussions captured in the Colour of Poverty Colour of Change Racialized Communities Consultations Report. The following is a summary of the main points from the roundtable discussions held with immigrant service workers and clients. Issue 1: Reasonable Expectations and Necessary Supports to Employment OW Workers - OW workers pressure clients to find a job, but don t provide appropriate or adequate support or guidance such as referral to an employment service. Clients have been pressured to attend a variety of job-search related workshops, regardless of whether it was appropriate for the client needs. Some clients have not been able to understand or relate to the workshop (language, cultural context) and some workers have later blamed the clients for their inability to make use of the workshop training. These workshops are a waste of time for some clients, and they feel further demoralized by the experience. OW workers have also pressured single mothers of very young children to find a full-time job, even if they cannot find a suitable and affordable childcare option. OW workers do not have the awareness, knowledge, training or sensitivity to effectively work with clients who want to transition to work and there is no case management on the file. Even when a client is referred to an employment counsellor to deal with the work-search part of the file, the OW worker does not practice good case management and the client does not get the full benefit of working with other professionals. OW/ODSP workers should move away from a numbers approach to their clients and use good case management instead. Employers Give incentives to employers who will provide minimum 1 year employment for an OW client. As well, given incentives to employers who hire and retain people with disabilities who are on ODSP. All employer-incentive programs should be conditional on training and retaining the employee in permanent employment. The City of Toronto program to hire OW clients for social services sector jobs is a good model, and should be pursued with the private sector and rolled out across the province. There are many challenges with community agencies trying to become OW/ODSP employers such as confusion about the role of the agency and not knowing how to accommodate people with disabilities who are ODSP. Childcare Provide childcare options for parents who are returning to work. It is especially important to provide options for parents with irregular work hours such as evenings and weekends, since this type of work is a reflection of job opportunities in today s economic climate and many clients tend to be hired for these types of work shifts. The options should be suitable for sole-support single mothers. Providing culturally sensitive childcare would Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) 2

3 encourage more women to enter the labour market. OW and ODSP clients should be provided childcare and transportation supports in order to effectively access internships and other similar initiatives that would help them to get a job that pays at least a living wage (which will allow them to get off social assistance). Education/Training OW should be able to support women and single parents in their efforts to pursue meaningful post-secondary education, work and career training. Clients are often denied the opportunity to pursue post-secondary training or skill-specific training, even if it might have given them an advantage in the job search. The OW/ODSP caseworker should use a case management approach and work with an employment counsellor AND job developers to help the client to transition to work. There should be room in the system to accommodate the individual needs of each client, which can be done through case management, and will have a better outcome for the client. Employment and ODSP - ODSP clients would benefit from more flexibility and disability accommodation from employers to give them greater control over amount and intensity of work. Flexible work arrangements such as flexible shifts, job sharing and more would allow ODSP clients to return to work more easily. Some ODSP clients cannot handle a regular work shift, since they may feel they are able to work one day but not the next day or the next hour. Social Services should make an effort to work with employers to develop flexible and creative work arrangements for ODSP clients. The provincial government and Municipal governments should lead by example and hire people with disabilities who are on ODSP. Social Services should work with other relevant Ministries and Departments to support community organizations and businesses who could potentially provide employment to ODSP clients, to meet the requirements under the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. ODSP programs are all currently geared to English-speakers and French speakers have no supports they can access. Transition to work OW/ODSP clients fear losing benefits such as transportation supports, drug/dental benefits because typically most clients are moving into low-income jobs that don t provide benefits. Most clients move into jobs that don t pay more than a survival wage and they don t allow them to build up savings that would help in the event of an illness. Clients who succeed in getting full-time employment then struggle to keep the job since they often don t earn enough to afford the supports they need to go to work every day such as transportation and childcare. There should be a transitional period to help OW clients to adjust to a different household budget. This could be done by changing the 50% claw back imposed on clients that find work. Specifically, use a step-increase scale for the claw back which should accommodate the individual and particular needs of that client. In general, clients find the transition to work to be very stressful. Limited labour market opportunities make coming off social assistance not only undesirable, but also difficult to sustain for many clients. Another approach could be to provide incentives, such as employment-related supports, to encourage people to access initiatives that would lead to employment. Experience of finding employment - The stigma attached to receiving social assistance prevents employers from hiring. Many clients face other multiple forms of discrimination because of race, immigration status and disability. OW/ODSP workers sometimes appear to be unable to understand systemic barriers to employment and do not provide appropriate support to the client. Clients are often too exhausted to work on issues such as finding a job because accessing and remaining qualified for social assistance takes a lot of time, work and Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) 3

4 energy. The disclosure of health status (ie. HIV/AIDS) and disability (ie. Hidden or less visible disability) has a major impact on a potential employer, particularly because the client is already stigmatized by being on social assistance. The potential risk of disclosing status and facing employer backlash was a major source of stress for clients, especially individuals with episodic illness such as HIV, or certain types of disability. Clients have to make tough choices between healthcare and employment. Holistic approach OW/ODSP workers should conduct a holistic client assessment that would include financial and related needs as well as emotional and physical health, selfesteem, education and training. The workers should adopt a case management approach to dealing with OW/ODSP clients. OW/ODSP workers must develop and maintain connections in the community to practice good case management. Example: A Social services program based in Sault Ste Marie takes a case management approach from the assessment stage to developing a program plan. The plan takes a holistic wrap-around approach that includes emotional and physical health, self-esteem, and education and training. Issue 2: Appropriate Benefit Structure Rates Current rates for OW/ODSP are too low. They should be raised to pre-1995 levels while factoring in inflation to the current year. Rates should be adjusted to reflect local costs. For instance there should be an increase in the shelter allowance for large urban centres. Any approach to design an appropriate benefit structure should be first piloted, and then reviewed for the impact on women, seniors, youth and immigrants. The asset limit and earnings cap for ODSP and OW should both be increased. Specifically, the ODSP asset limit for a single person should be increased to at least $10,000. Housing allowance amounts are inadequate and do not reflect the market rate for rents, particularly in downtown Toronto. The low rates force OW clients to cheat by working informally (in the underground economy). Other benefits - Transportation subsidies should become a standard part of OW. There should be consistency in eligibility assessments, and in making clients aware of the supports available such as community start-up costs and the special diet allowance. At present, OW/ODSP workers tend to provide supports only if requested by the client. Often clients are unaware of what is available and therefore do not request the supports. All of the benefits, special supports and programs should be available in all communities and that information should be made freely available. Issue 3: Easier to Understand Communication All information pertaining to OW/ODSP should be written in clear and plain language. This is especially true for rules pertaining to special needs, such as those relating to pregnant women. The rules are so complicated and numerous that OW/ODSP case workers too have trouble understanding them. Further, they are not aware of many rules and often misunderstand them. Case workers also fail to adequate communicate rules and requirements to clients, and often misapply them or are inconsistent. Community worker role Clients often turn to community workers for help to access benefits and supports because they don t qualify for legal aid or because they are referred elsewhere by the local legal clinic. Many community workers find it difficult to understand Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) 4

5 the rules and requirements for OW/ODSP or misunderstand them. They have found it difficult to access up-to date information on policy directives that might affect their clients. Policy changes and new directives should be written in clear language and Social Services should improve the distribution of this information. Language There are no interpretation services in small communities outside the GTA. There is a need for trained interpreters to provide culturally appropriate interpretation services for clients. At present, OW/ODSP clients must rely on family members or volunteers, which is inappropriate and highly problematic. Issue 4: Viable over the Long-Term Data In order to improve the system, the appropriate data should be collected to understand the experience of different equity-seeking groups. Specifically, collect and cross-tabulate data on race, ethnicity, gender, education, immigration status, foreign credentials and other equity-related factors, in order to make a proper assessment of the impact of any changes. Race-ethnicity data should be made available in a disaggregated form particularly to the affected communities and to organizations that provide them with services. The privacy of OW/ODSP clients should be protected and their concerns about the collection and usage of data should be addressed effectively. There is a need to support and enable better research on who is needs social assistance, who is able to access it, where needs are unfulfilled and why. Outcomes - OW/ODSP involved clients should leave the social assistance system better than they were when they entered it. The goal of social assistance should be to enhance an individual s dignity and standard of life through providing income support, which is a necessary aspect if clients are to successfully make the transition to work. Nordic countries have good examples of how this may be accomplished. For each client, look at the reasons for lack of progress in transitioning off social assistance, including paying attention to systemic barriers such as lack of recognition of foreign experience and credentials. There is a need to address the long-standing issues of under-employment/unemployment of qualified workers that force them to rely on social assistance. Issue 5: An Integrated Ontario Position on Income Security Housing and homelessness The low social assistance rates force clients to choose substandard housing and to live in locations that are dangerous or are very far from jobs and services. Poverty is pushed to the suburbs which magnify barriers to employment and stresses. There is a particular impact on ODSP clients who are less able to cope with additional stresses of living in high crime/over-crowded/infested residences. Young people, immigrants and new arrivals in the community are particularly impacted and make up the invisible homeless who are couch-surfing, or who live in multiple family/over-crowded dwellings. Food and nutrition The ODSP food allowance is insufficient to afford food that has adequate nutrition. OW/ODSP clients are chronically reliant on food banks, which are not able to provide a sufficient quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables. Immigrants and refugees are not familiar with the type of food provided through the food bank and are often at a loss when it comes to dealing with issues of hunger and nutrition. There is a long-term effect. Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) 5

6 Asset limits The asset limits too restrictive and not realistic or supportive of the long-term financial needs of OW/ODSP clients. There should be a transition period of OW/ODSP support when a client gets a job, to give them a chance to build up assets and maintain employment to get them out of poverty in the long-term. Without this approach, clients are more likely to rotate on and off assistance. Rates The low rates leave clients with little choice but to play the system in order to meet their housing/food/material needs. Clients have adopted these survival strategies because the amount of assistance given is not enough. Other Issues not addressed in the discussion paper or questionnaire: Access issues On-site childminding services should be provided for women when meeting the caseworker. Women feel reluctant to discuss sensitive issues with the caseworker when their children are present, and the presence of children can be distracting for both the client and the caseworker. This is particularly important when there are communication barriers because of language issues. Communication There is a need to provide trained interpreters and translators. There are too many occurrences of misunderstanding and communication break-down because of language barriers, as well as cultural misunderstanding and insensitivity on the part of the case worker. Student Loans OW/ODSP clients are forced to choose between social assistance and student debt (OSAP), which creates disincentive for some to invest in further education which could lead to better employment outcomes in the long-term. Case worker knowledge There is a significant variation in the degree of knowledge and understanding case workers have about programs, benefits and rules. Case workers are often ineffective at helping clients to access benefits and supports. Clients frequently find out about programs through other clients or third parties. Case workers do not have an adequate awareness of or sensitivity to the different and unique circumstances of clients, such as torture, trafficking and domestic abuse, leading to miscommunication, incorrect assessment and often re-victimizing the client. Anti-discrimination training - Case workers need to be trained on issues faced by abused women and in different cultural communities. There a need to ensure that case workers treat all clients with respect. The present intake process requires disclosure of a large amount of personal and sensitive information. The information has little relevance to the administration of social assistance and serves only to re-victimize clients, particularly those that have experienced abuse or trauma. Information - OW workers do not inform clients about the different supports such as transportation costs and community start-up fund and often wait for the client to request the specific program. Many immigrant and refugee clients are not aware of these supports and therefore do not make a request. When clients do request the support, the case worker sometimes rejects it outright, or makes the process long and difficult. Appeals The appeals process should be improved to be more accessible. The tribunal process should be shorter and more efficient. Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) 6

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