On May 15, The BC Office of the Ombudsperson released a special report addressing systemic shortcomings at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (MSDPR). In “Working Within the Rules: Supporting Employment for Income Assistance Recipients” the BC Ombudsperson explores the Ministry’s consistent failure to follow its own legislation regarding earnings exemptions, ultimately denying people assistance they were legally entitled to.
The particular case the Ombudsperson looked at involved a woman with Person with Persistent Multiple Barriers to Employment designation (PPMB) who had several injuries that interfered considerably with her ability to work. In some months she was able to work a fair amount, while in other months she was only able to work very little or not at all.
Occasionally, she worked enough to become ineligible to receive any PPMB money. A person on income assistance who has earnings one month must report these earnings the next month, and these earnings will affect their cheque for the month after that. For example, earnings in December are reported in January and affect the February income assistance cheque. If a person’s earnings in December, say, are high enough that they are ineligible to receive income assistance, their cheque for February will be zero. This was the situation of the woman in question.
The Ministry’s policy was that if a person was not in receipt of income from MSDPR in the previous month, they were not eligible for the earnings exemption the following month. It was this policy that negatively affected the woman in this case. Her December earnings (in 2014) were such that she received no income from MSDPR in February (2015), and as a result she was not eligible for the earnings exemption in March, and her earnings were deducted dollar-for-dollar from her income assistance cheque that month. She ended up, in fact, being financially worse off as a result of the work she did in December than if she had worked less or not at all.
The woman appealed the Ministry’s decision to the Reconsideration Branch of MSDPR. She was successful and the Ministry re-instated the earnings exemption for March. However, several months later, the situation presented itself again. She received no PPMB money one month as a result of her work income, only to find that her earnings were deducted dollar-for-dollar in the following month. The Ministry again said she was not eligible for the earnings exemption, and she was forced to appeal again, about an issue that was identical to the one the Reconsideration Branch had resolved in her favor several months before.
So there were two main issues the Office of the Ombudsperson looked at: one relating to the earnings exemption in the month following a month where the person received no income assistance money from MSDPR; the other regarding the Ministry requiring that a person appeal again over an issue that has previously been resolved in the person’s favour.
The report puts forward a number of recommendations to the Ministry, with the aim of resolving, at least in part, issues identified in the Ombudsperson’s investigation. Significantly, the Ombudsperson called for the Ministry to identify and reimburse all people who, from October 1, 2012, onward, were wrongfully denied the earnings exemption because they did not received income assistance in the previous month, and to create a process for dealing with systemic/repetitive legal errors that the Reconsideration Branch identifies.
The report’s findings also reflect some of the procedural barriers we have faced in our work at TAPS, for example, the Ministry requiring clients to pursue an appeal in the denial of their earnings exemption, despite knowing that the policy being followed was inconsistent with the legislation, and therefore unlawful. The Ombudsperson described this as “the Ministry act[ing] unjustly and oppressively”.
These recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Ministry, represent an important first step, and while change comes slowly to bureaucracy, this report demonstrates that the Office of the Ombudsperson is listening. We hope that the Ombudsperson will continue to look proactively into systemic injustices at the Ministry, in addition to their work addressing individual complaints and issues.
You can read the full report online at www.bcombudsperson.ca, or drop into the TAPS office to read a paper copy.