$1.15-per-hour pay causes controversy

Government contract involved workers with cognitive disabilities

It made for shocking news: Fifty people with developmental disabilities in Ottawa were being paid $1.15 per hour to sort and shred paper. To make matters worse? The federal government was involved.

Going beyond the headlines, the situation was not so black and white — the workers were part of a work program set up 35 years ago in a joint agreement between a community association and the provincial and federal governments. A lump sum of $125,000 was divided as honourarium payments among the workers. 

The employees also received provincial disability payments of $800 to $1,000 per month, along with health and dental coverage, according to media reports. 

After all the media attention, the contract was renewed for three years. But changes are definitely needed when it comes to employment of this group, say the experts.

“It’s part of an old history that goes back and is long outdated and has been long considered wrong in most areas of Canada, so I think it’s a bit of an anachronism that just got exposed when the contract was ended. But there’s no excuse for it, for anybody, least of all of the federal government or any government. They have the duty to set the example and do the right thing by people,” said Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion BC in Vancouver.

“People are deserving, as citizens, of the benefits of the same legislation that all of us do, including our labour legislation and our minimum wage legislation.”

Started back in the 1950s, these programs were created at a time when it was thought people with developmental disabilities should either live at home with their families or in residential institutions, said Michael Bach, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) in Toronto. Eventually,  “sheltered workshops” developed, with government-funded activities and day programs.

“So we’re, in a sense, stuck with that infrastructure and these policies and programs… while our assumptions about the plights of people with developmental disabilities have moved on.… not entirely but there’s more and more acceptance and commitment to building a more inclusive labour market,” he said.

There have been human rights and equality challenges to this premise, and provincial employment standards have changed, said Bach. But to get around some of the human rights concerns, the programs have been labelled life skills training programs or volunteer opportunities.

The problem is people can stay in the programs for a long time — the Ottawa workers, for example, were there for 26 years, said Keenan Wellar, co-leader and director of communications at LiveWorkPlay in Ottawa, which helps individuals with intellectual disabilities succeed in their communities.

“Clearly, that is really challenging the definition of training. I don’t think any person would really buy into that,” he said. 
Even when people are training, they deserve real pay, said Bodnar.

“None of us do training for less than minimum wage — why would people with developmental disabilities do that? It’s fundamentally not a sound policy nor a sound human rights platform.”

2014 tribunal decision
There have been a couple of challenges to these exemptions for “training programs,” said Wellar, citing the case of Garrie v. Janus Joan. That saw Terri-Lynn Garrie awarded more than $180,000 in 2014 by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario for lost income and monetary compensation for discrimination and injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

The tribunal disagreed that Garrie, who has a developmental disability, was a trainee as she worked for the employer for over 10 years doing the same work.

Many employers feel they’re offering a benefit to these individuals, said Russell Groves, a lawyer at Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti in Toronto. 

“There’s not always villains in this case, there’s probably well-intentioned people sometimes, although they’re still violating the law.”

If the employer’s getting full value from these workers, they should pay the full rate, said Groves.

“For the individual too, it’s degrading to realize that you’re being paid 10 per cent of what your co-workers are being paid.”

As for the argument lower wages help keep income levels down when it comes to government assistance, that doesn’t fly in Ontario where there’s no issue with people’s disability pension, said Wellar.

“(It) is set up very carefully to not discourage people from working, so even though as your income increases beyond $200, they begin to reduce your benefits by 50 cents on the dollar. Do the math any way you want and you’re way better off with your employment income,” he said.  “It’s probably $8 to $10,000 more a year in people’s pockets if they are getting minimum wage instead of honourariums or stipends or whatever twist you put on that.”

People are fearful of losing other benefits or they fear they won’t get back on those benefits if their job falls through, said Bodnar.
“We need to look at how we create income programs that encourage people to work beyond those income-earning exemptions, so they need to be able to maintain health benefits within a certain range of income.”

The ideal solution would see government setting up a program to approve this type of arrangement, said Groves.

“They’d have to review the status of the individual, the type of work that was being done, the remuneration, if they’d have to be integrated into other provisions of social assistance — that kind of plan could work for everyone because it’d be protection against exploitation, but you would still allow these people with cognitive disabilities to get out and be involved and enjoy the benefit of being in an integrated society. Is it better if employers would just hire them and pay them full wage? Of course, but it’s perhaps not practical in all cases.”

The financing needs to change so agencies support people to participate more directly in the community and build bridges with employers, said Bach.

“We need to look at developmental disability as just another side of diversity.”

As an example, the Canadian Association for Community Living has been working with employers such as Costco and Home Depot to hire people with developmental disabilities, for at least minimum wage, he said.

“People have either assumed that this group is taken care of because we have these services out there in the community or (they’re) not quite sure what to do. They may think it’s a great idea but just don’t have the knowledge or support to do it, they don’t know where to turn. And so we’re trying to fill that gap for them and create a bridge.”

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