New Democratic Party (NDP) MPP for Windsor West Lisa Gretzky is raising the alarm about Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s policy to contract out employment services, heavily used by immigrants, to foreign companies and to dissolve other supports. Ontario’s government assures the reforms will deliver employment services that surpass current system levels.
Ford’s Conservatives said in February last year that they would be moving ahead with reforms that would see WCG, a Canadian subsidiary of the Australian company APM, handle employment placements in the Region of Peel. And a consortium led by the American company Fedcap will be taking on cases in the Hamilton-Niagara Region. Both are private companies providing human services; both began working with the regions in January 2021.
“It’s concerning especially when you are looking at the immigrant community,” Gretzky told NCM. “If you take the services out of our communities and give them to these big international companies…, there’s real concern that they don’t understand our communities. They don’t understand individuals the way people on the ground in our communities do, and people are really going to be forced into employment that is not suitable to them,” she added.
Ontario’s Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton says his priority is “to ensure the people of Ontario – especially those who’ve been left behind in the pandemic – can find good jobs that will drive this province’s economic recovery.”
“With only 1 per cent of people on social assistance finding jobs each month, the Auditor General has made clear the current system isn’t working. Our government is committed to spreading opportunity and these pilot programs will help the people who need it most find and keep quality jobs,” he said in a statement to NCM.
McNaughton is referring to the Auditor General’s 2016 report which found, among others, that the majority of clients of employment services agencies were unsuccessful in finding a job, that overpayments to clients weren’t being recovered, and that apprenticeship completion rates were low.
Old problems, not so new solutions?
As a measure to “streamline” and modernize social safety net policies in the province, Ontario Works (OW), an employment and financial assistance framework, and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) have been absorbed into Employment Ontario (EO) and, by the same token, moved to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD) from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS). EO is being administered by the foreign contractors.
As of December last year, 200,834 people were registered in the Ontario Works system, of whom 74,974 were immigrants, according to data provided by the MLTSD. There were 3.8 million immigrants in Ontario as of the 2016 census, the last set of reliable numbers.
“These reforms will deliver employment services that surpass current system levels,” Harry Godfrey, press secretary for the labour minister told NCM. “Unlike the current system, our transformation includes tying system management compensation to performance to ensure that targets are met.”
The ministry will use what are called Service System Managers (SSMs): planners who design and implement social services according to the needs of people on the ground. It’s for these roles that WSG and APM were selected.
Kalem McSween, a spokesperson for the MLTSD, added: “In the new system, managers will be required to offer specialized supports to clients who have unique employment service needs, including people with disabilities, Indigenous people, youth that require higher supports, newcomers, and Francophones.”
“In negotiating their agreements with the ministry, system managers have set targets for serving individuals belonging to inclusion groups designated by the ministry,” McSween said.
But it’s not clear exactly how this was done, and Gretzky is uncomfortable about having a private sector company rather than a public sector, government agency deliver the service.
“We have concerns just in general about the direction this government is going. Contracts that say you will get paid based on how many people you get placed in a job rather than a system that is publicly run and publicly delivered,” Gretzky said.
“It has already been proven here in Ontario, she added. “The previous Liberal government had tried to do the same thing and found that there were inappropriate placements.”
What Gretzky refers to is the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty’s past attempt to implement a similar policy, also using WCG. By 2008, it became increasingly apparent that contracting out to the firm was a failure. An independent report that examined the JobsNow program, as it was known under the Liberals, is no longer available, however, the B.C.-based publication The Tyee quoted it extensively. The private contractor was reportedly shown to be “not more effective than regular Ontario Works programming.”
The Tyee also says the report established “there were no incremental reductions in [Income Assistance] that could be attributed to JobsNow.” Ontario paid $7.6 million towards the company even though it was clear that there was no return on investment. The program had since been scrapped.
New system as seen from within
The incumbent government insists “no eligibility changes have been made to Ontario Works or ODSP.”
The Hamilton-Niagara Region will be continuing to deliver OW and ODSP through its Social Assistance and Employment Opportunities (SAEO). “Clients will continue to be assessed on an individualized basis by SAEO staff for participation benefits,” Lori Watson, director of SAEO told NCM. “SAEO staff complete a comprehensive assessment with clients to identify their needs. Staff provide case management support, make appropriate referrals and assist with system navigation to community supports.”
The Region of Peel, in turn, completes “a detailed common assessment and makes prompt referrals to WCG for clients who are interested/motivated in pursuing their employment goals and continues to support them to overcome life challenges to ensure their success,” Susan Lazzer, program director for Peel’s Human Service wrote in a comment for NCM.
She emphasized the region’s commitment to “accountability and service performance; regularly tracking and monitoring outcomes, key performance indicators and the client experience at both the program and system level.” Both Niagara and Peel emphasized that caseworkers are collaborating with WCG and Fedcap to ensure recipients get the best possible help.