Wednesday, February 29, 2012


There is a lot of underground talking about the town.

I am finding it hard to educate the people in my city about what the government is up to because February was the month of policy speak and the Drummond beat. Some people think cutting civil service jobs and "letting the private sector" run things is a great thing. They view the private sector as somehow efficient, streamlined and less costly to the public purse. This is not necessarily the case, especially since many studies of private sector delivery of health care and other services have been done, and it is shown that the "efficiency" of the private sector does not return to the public purse in tax savings at all, but in higher profits for those in charge of the private firms delivering the service. There are also issues of end user costs, accountability, ownership of personal data, and the quality and skill of people replacing the public workers in the private firms.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have any trouble with supporting private sector involvement in areas that are competitively delivered by the private sector in the region as it is. For example, there is no need for a public airline, a public railway, a public automaker, or similar services, where competitors exist in the private market and efficiency can be gained, or offset using other "client" or "customer bases" apart from the organization's public delivery function. For example, a train service like VIA or CP can be subsidized publicly to provide a certain range of services to keep costs to the general public affordable, while the organization can secure private contracts in freight and business class services.

Health care is delivered largely privately as well, but it would be an error to allow health care providers to find profits elsewhere, such as providing quicker service to those that can pay full costs. Health care is different than the trains, as members of the general public do not normally order freight cargo or transport -- but in health care, *some* members of the public can and are willing to pay full price out of pocket, bucking less fortunate people out of line to get served first. Freight trains can add cars as needed. Our health care system is limited by its design, whereas there are only a limited number of providers. Higher demand on the private side may sway many of those providers to serve higher paying customers, but this can and will only detract from the quality of service for individuals that cannot pay.

However, it does not mean efficiencies cannot be found within health care or government as a whole, but we need to make sure that these efficiencies are truly that, and not simply hacksawing services away or putting large numbers of people out of work, just to add to the numbers already competing for the limited number of jobs available. We also have to ensure that the nature of the service delivery does not change to the client group in receipt of the service. For example, one of the proposals by both Drummond and by the Social Assistance Reform Commission is to dump the ODSP program altogether and let each region run it as it so chooses.

There are already problems in regional delivery systems for the Ontario Works program. There are municipalities that do this job well, and have enjoyed successes in reducing their caseloads and keeping more people employed and providing supports through collaboration with local agencies for those with multiple barriers to returning to work. However, in my experience, this has been more the exception and not the norm. After learning of these recommendations, I took it to the streets to speak to people who are currently receiving Ontario Works, or who have received it in the past, and are currently receiving ODSP. In Niagara, there are some positives, such as certain workers that appear to be skilled at working with local agencies and building add on supports at the neighbourhood level. However, virtually all of those I spoke to, regardless of how "compliant" they are to Ontario Works measures, have experienced examples of abusive treatment: cheques suspended, cheques getting "lost", emergency assistance being denied, or cheques put "on hold" until the client that usually has no funds is expected to take two buses to come to the office to provide something they already provided at an earlier date, such as a birth certificate or an earnings report.

All clients on OW are expected to engage in a participation agreement. For many people, it is simple. The person is going to school to upgrade their skills, or they are already working part time and seeking to move to full time work. However, for others, they feel they have been directed to jobs, employers or other situations that, they are being knowingly referred to and set up for failure. Participation agreements often do not honour one's education, career goals, income needs, or health conditions that might restrict them from some types of jobs. I have known of well educated people, often at the Master's or post-graduate level being referred to greenhouse work or call centers. The Case Manager is only concerned with getting an agreement, a job and a file off their desk. This is not the best way to approach some "participants", as the program laughingly calls them. Even if a highly educated person with a strong previous resume accepts a low wage job; if they work at that job for any length of time without outside involvement in "their" field, their next employer will not look at them seriously. I have spoken to employers that become suspicious if a man with a business degree applies for a job at their firm, but their only recent work experience was in a greenhouse or a call center or doing janitorial work. The first question that would come to mind is, "What is this employee hiding from me?" They will be reluctant to hire this person for this reason.

If Ontario Works takes over ODSP, will all ODSP recipients now have to sign participation agreements, and if so, would the nature of these participation agreements be similar to what I described above? To the extent of my knowledge of the people on ODSP around here, these methods will certainly not result in a job for these persons. Many will not be able to handle it, and failure to comply may lead to cut off or suspension. Don't the administrators of these programs know that people have to pay rent or mortgage, and by even holding their cheque for a few days, their housing can be jeopardized? Is that person going to be more prepared to work if they end up having to fight an eviction, in addition to whatever myriad of other problems they already present?

Would ODSP recipients become subject to the rigorous month to month eligibility review status some OW recipients have been through? Income security is very important to persons with disability. Persons have been put onto ODSP for a reason. Many will not take the kind of pushing and prodding that an OW Case Manager might attempt in order to get them off the system. What will happen to them if they start to find their "workers" putting their cheques on hold, suspending payments, or even cutting them off entirely because they failed to complete something minor in their participation agreements? What about their income support? While there were no specifics given, it appears that the municipalities have been pushing for a 3-tiered approach to income support: (a) one amount for those who are most job ready and only need short term help; (b) another (higher) amount for those that face multiple barriers due to disability, addiction, housing or other issues; and (c) a pension like program for persons with "severe" disabilities.

Drummond bought this whole concept of "severe" disabilities hook, line and sinker. In fact, Drummond cited a questionable statistic that only about 22% of persons with disabilities receiving support would fall under the "severe" category. Where does he get this figure? If it is from the PALS survey, he is misusing and misinterpreting this information. Virtually all studies like this come from self report of one's severity of disability. "Severity" is very difficult to objectively define. There are no tests that can definitively place one's disability into a "mild", "moderate", "severe" or "very severe" category, without a substantial input of self reported limitations, symptoms and clinical (not always necessarily scientific) observation. For example, there are people with fibromyalgia that can work, while others with the very same condition and profile cannot work. The disability is very much attached to the person, as much as that person's preferences, attitudes, likes, dislikes, talents, skills, and characteristics. The interplay between these characteristics and self reported "severity" of disability are generally related to one's self-identified experience or success in the labour market.

Further, the labour market is not completely ready to accept people with disabilities. Most employers I speak to want to hire qualified persons with disabilities, but they themselves face a number of concerns: (a) how much is this going to cost?; (b) how will the accommodations we give this person affect the other members of my workforce?; (c) how can I determine the level of performance in a person with a disability for which I am giving accommodation to, as compared to the same evaluation for a non disabled colleague doing the same job?; and (d) what can I expect from this person if they join my workforce? Many of these employers can and want to be trained in learning how to overcome these barriers, but there are issues of access to these kinds of resources, as well as costs. Small businesses often turn to my office for human resource advice, as well as legal issues, as they are not human resource managers. An employer or owner of a company is very skilled at what they do, whether that be providing a service or manufacturing a product. They know their industry well, work hard to develop good relationships with suppliers, client or customer base, as well as delivering their product or service at a price that is affordable to their target market.

Most companies I deal with these days do not operate by a vertical level of authority as companies once did. In the former generation, a large company would try to keep as much of its services, suppliers and people in house, and as their people grow in the company, they get promotions and move up some kind of "company ladder". Today, the private sector delivers their goods and services in a more linear fashion, using internal teams and external suppliers. Cleaning, shredding, IT services, human resources, legal services, accounting, websites and even some technical aspects of the delivery are outsourced today to smaller companies or independent contractors. This saves the main company money, as they do not have to cover the benefits, EI, CPP and other costs for each employee, if they had taken them in house. Henceforth, many companies recognize the specialization offered by the outside firms, and by contracting out, they are buying these highly valued services in the bits and pieces that the company needs, as opposed to keeping somebody on staff to do this work regardless of need.

Because of this, people are often hired on contract, through temporary agencies, or by the specialized suppliers to the larger companies at a lower wage than they would have been had they been hired directly by the larger company itself. This is not much of a problem for people who are entrepreneurial and have a specific skill to deliver, and can support the work of several organizations that need "in time" help for their type of service. However, this represents bad news for people with lower skill sets, less employment experience, and perhaps, unrelated job barriers, such as a disability or other issues that might make the smaller firms nervous and ask the kinds of questions I referred to above. This pattern is also taking place in the public sector to some degree as well, where large facilities like hospitals and universities are seeking these same kinds of horizontal efficiencies as well.

This shift in the labour market is major. The old manufacturing jobs that our parents had are not coming back. If any manufacturing is going to survive in Ontario, it is that of the highly specialized kind. I have client companies that do just this -- highly specialized manufacturing that cannot so easily be exported to India and the finished products bought back by us in Ontario. There are also highly skilled knowledge-based positions as well, such as in "green technologies", IT sector and biosciences. The number of people required for these companies will be significantly smaller, but they will be highly skilled and narrowly purposed. Many people on Ontario Works that have a higher level of education should be steered towards these new options, as opposed to simply sending them off to call centers and greenhouses. If they do not have all the education, then there *must* be ways to develop these people so that they can be educated on the job, as well as through the academia available to train people in these sectors. Others with education and training in the social sciences or business development sectors should be employed BY Ontario Works to assist in the development of viable social enterprises that can be used to train and possibly hire people with marketable skills (e.g. in a region with a high percentage of seniors, agricultural, vinticultural and hospitality-based successes - a social enterprise base can be developed to service these industries).

But what about those people on ODSP? Should they be divided into who can and cannot work? Again, this is just as fictional as the "severe" disability category. Stephen Hawking, Christopher Reeves, Catherine Frazee, Judith Snow, among many other persons have so called "severe" disabilities, but they are productive citizens. On the other hand, somebody with chronic depression, low back pain, anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder might not be so productive for various reasons, even though their disabilities do not look "severe" on the surface. One of the few things that Mike Harris did right was to separate people with disabilities from those with short term need when his government developed ODSP. His government also set up ODSP to be flexible, supportive and to have an open door for employment. People on ODSP have a choice to work or not, and many do choose to work or try to. By defining some of them as not being able to work, does this mean they will not be allowed to try? What will happen then? I witnessed what would happen when this was the case here in Ontario. People get cut off benefits because they are no longer "permanently unemployable", and yes, this has led to tragedy.

What about those that are considered able to work? There appears to be an implication for the amount of income support they will receive. To me, there is no rationale for lowering somebody's income because they are "able to work". Wait until they find a job FIRST, before decreasing their income support. This is a particularly strong concern of mine. Will those currently on ODSP lose some of their income if they are deemed able to work? This is not going to produce jobs for people -- cutting their benefits down or off completely is not going to create the hundreds of thousands of jobs for these people who by this type of policy are "cured" overnight and thereby ready to compete side by side with healthy, younger individuals. The more likely consequence will be a spike in the number of evictions, increased homelessness, addictions and open panhandling. As it is without this new directive, I am already seeing young people involved in prostitution, hooked on drugs, sleeping in the ATM corridors or in lane ways at night. I also speak to these people. They are not babbling to themselves or crazy or stupid like the media wants us to believe, but they are individuals who at one time had hopes and dreams like everybody else, then something happened. Our government needs to be especially careful to make sure that whatever policy direction they choose, that these things that "happen" do not increase in number and to more people, especially the vulnerable.

It is unrealistic to continue with austerity measures until the economy turns around, as my first recommendation. Austerity must also impact those that can afford to pay more, while at the same time encouraging those that actually do create jobs and increase investment in our communities. Unfortunately, our public attitude is that we have somehow become allergic to taxes and will revolt at any suggestion of a tax hike, while theoretically cuts in services sound good until one tries to turn to them. People complain loudly when their roads are not plowed, potholes are not filled, or they can't speak to a "real human" at a Service Ontario kiosk. What else do they believe tax cuts will bring us? Our public has to wake up and accept that taxes are part of civilization, and while taxes should not be hiked too high to prevent people from making good choices -- they do need to be hiked to pre-1995 levels, including corporate income taxes. This can be done gradually over a period of seven years to allow people and companies to adjust.

Before you go on a tirade about how companies will bolt out of Ontario with higher taxes, this is exactly what they are doing right now with one of the lowest taxes of the provinces in Canada, and amongst the lowest taxes in all OECD countries. These companies have names: Caterpillar, John Deere, Henniges, Canada Food Classics, Lear, CanGro, Atlas Steel, and many, many more ... all left when corporate taxes were at their lowest levels. When a company hires somebody, they do not pay taxes on the income they have that was used to pay that person's salary. Even certain payroll taxes are waived for companies below a certain size. Taxes only affect a corporation when it is profitable. Most corporations -- even those that are well run -- are not profitable, but have good cash flow. Tax policy doesn't affect these companies, as they pay little or no corporate taxes. Individuals with higher incomes are limited to only three tax brackets - the highest being only 29%. Perhaps, this should increase to 35 - 40%. I paid 35% of my income in taxes during the 1990s when taxes were higher for wealthier persons. I was earning in the top 10% at the time, but the taxes I paid did not bother me. Taxes were a price to pay for economic security. Low income individuals may not pay a lot of income taxes (though they do pay a disproportionate share of other kinds of taxes), but they in turn feel insecure. I am constantly being told by many people they are worried about keeping up their rent payments, keeping their homes, feeding the kids, paying off debts, all while they cannot afford so called luxuries like a telephone, a personal vehicle, etc.

Don Drummond in his review of public services in Ontario, together with the implied direction of Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, Social Assistance Reform Commissioners, have started this conversation. We, as a people, need to redirect this conversation, or austerity measures will take us all down to a path of societal destruction, anomie, bankruptcies, and personal tragedies like we are seeing in the UK, as a result of actually carrying out many of the reforms being considered by Drummond and the Social Assistance Reform Commission. It is way too easy to push through these kinds of changes in our policies, but a heck of a lot more difficult to reverse the damages once these decisions have been made.

Let's try to stop this running train before it derails all of us.

1 comment:

The Advocate said...

Testing,one, two, three.