Penalized for Working? Disabled Lose 50 Cents on Every Dollar Earned

Laurie Monsebraaten
Social Justice Reporter

Like everyone who receives a monthly cheque from Ontario’s disability support program, Sharon Burfind loses 50 cents on every dollar she earns in her part-time job.

The meagre amount of earnings she and other disabled people keep then triggers higher costs for other help they receive, such as subsidized rent, child
care and student loan repayments.

“The rational person would say ‘What’s the point of working?’ ” says Burfind, 60. “The majority of people work to get ahead, not to get behind.”

Earning rules and administrative practices are one of the reasons why those who rely on Ontario’s welfare system for the disabled are 11 times more likely to be unemployed than the average Ontarian, says a new report by advocates for the mentally ill.

While 49 per cent of Ontarians with disabilities are employed, just 11 per cent on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are working, says the report, to be released Tuesday.

The report, “What Stops Us From Working?” calls on Queen’s Park to allow those receiving ODSP to earn up to $300 a month with no clawbacks for one year and to be able to reconcile earnings annually rather than monthly.

The government should also “help make work pay” for this group by streamlining ODSP earnings rules with other social programs such as subsidized housing and child care and by expanding ODSP employment supports, says the report, obtained by the Star.

It was sponsored by The Dream Team, a group of ex-psychiatric patients; Houselink Community Homes, a supportive housing provider; and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Almost 400,000 individuals in Ontario relied on ODSP in March. The program provides a maximum of $1,053 per month for a single person — almost $7,000 a year below the after-tax poverty line of $19,478 for a single person last year.

Working income offers the possibility of escaping poverty, improves mental health and benefits everyone, the report notes.

“It would boost consumer spending and taxes paid, and decrease pressure on the health and social assistance systems,” it says.

Burfind, a former medical secretary, lost everything about 15 years ago, when a stressful working environment spiralled into mental illness, leaving her
bankrupt and homeless.

Various part-time jobs with the supportive housing agency that runs her rent-geared-to-income apartment have helped her slowly regain a sense of worth and community.

But when she was offered full-time work at minimum wage several years ago, Burfind felt she couldn’t afford to take it because it would mean a rent hike.

“Work becomes more of a punishment than something to be proud of,” says Burfind, one of nine ODSP recipients whose stories are highlighted in the report.

The often arbitrary, demeaning and incompetent treatment of the disabled by ODSP administrators can compound recipients’ poverty and desperation, the report found.

In Burfind’s case, she was told she had to liquidate an insurance policy or face penalties due to ODSP’s $5,000 asset limit.

But after Burfind collapsed the policy and spent all the money on a weekend trip to Montreal, the ODSP worker told her he was mistaken. Life insurance policies are, in fact, exempt from asset limits.

Michael Koo has also been hurt by an ODSP administrative screw-up.

The thoughtful, soft-spoken man in his mid-30s struggles with anxiety and depression disorders. He had a part-time job as a peer support worker for seniors suffering from mental illness and felt he was making important connections through pet therapy using a lovebird.

But for Koo, the game-changer was housing. After years of living in rooming houses and other shared accommodation, he credits a bright bachelor apartment in a quiet midtown walk-up with helping him get back on his feet.

However, unpredictable work hours and ODSP payments calculated on his previous month’s earnings caused Koo to fall behind in his rent.

When an ODSP worker suggested he authorize direct deposit of his rent to the landlord, Koo thought his housing troubles were solved. But due to a mix-up in the ODSP office, the rent was never paid. The landlord harassed Koo’s employer for the money and started eviction proceedings.

He is now unemployed and about to become homeless.

“I’ve lost my job. I’ve lost my housing. And I’m losing my self-esteem,” he says. “I am very worried about my future.”

Queen’s Park should introduce an online calculator for monthly earnings that would clarify ODSP rules and the complex system of earnings deductions in plain language, the report says.

This is a service already provided by Ottawa to help people calculate GST/HST credits and child and working tax benefits, it notes.

Social policy expert John Stapleton, who wrote the report, says annual reconciliation of earnings would be consistent with the province’s new policy of
calculating subsidized rent once a year.

“The gas and hydro companies allow consumers to pay a set monthly amount every month, based on previous consumption,” he says. It would save (ODSP) workers from having to deal with all this menial paperwork every month.”

Report recommendations

  • Increase monthly work-related benefits to $150 from $100
  • Exempt first $300 per month from 50 per cent earnings clawback for one year
  • Reconcile earnings yearly instead of monthly
  • Introduce an online calculator to clarify rules and earnings deductions
  • Streamline treatment of ODSP earnings with programs such as subsidized rent, child care and student loan repayment
  • Expand ODSP employment supports to include training and on-the-job support
  • Raise asset limits

Source: “What Stops Us From Working?”
Reproduced from–penalized-for-working-disabled-lose-50-cents-on-every-dollar-earned?bn=1