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B.C. Ombudsperson's report shows thousands of welfare recipients unfairly penalized

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2018-05-17 CBC/Radio-Canada
The Ministry of Social Development has accepted the Ombudsman's recommendation to identify and reimburse the estimated 3,700 income assistance recipients who, over the years, received less income assistance than they should have.© Peter Scobie/CBC The Ministry of Social Development has accepted the Ombudsman's recommendation to identify and reimburse the estimated 3,700 income assistance recipients who, over the years, received less income assistance than they should have.

A new investigation by the B.C. Ombudsperson found thousands of people who were on social assistance as far back as 2012 were unfairly penalized by a government policy.

The ministry has accepted the office's recommendation to provide additional income assistance to the estimated 3,700 people who over the years received less income assistance than they should have.

B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke says the investigation was triggered by one woman's complaint.

Under earnings exemptions for welfare recipients in B.C., individuals are allowed to keep a certain amount of earned income without having it deducted from their income assistance. Anything above that amount is deducted dollar-for-dollar.

"The ministry describes the purpose in its own manual of the earnings exemption saying that its to offer recipients and opportunity to build job skills and experience to increase employability and take advantage of part-time or temporary work and better provide for their families while receiving assistance," Chalke said.

Unlawful policy

Chalke said the woman, in the case he reviewed, earned enough income in a month that she didn't receive any income assistance. However, the following month, the ministry's computer system again invoked a one-month suspension of her earning's exemption.

"That one month suspension is not authorized by law and is inconsistent with the concept of an earnings exemption," Chalke said.

The woman filed a complaint with the ministry's own internal branch and was successful getting the automatic suspension revoked.

She was suspended a second time, and her second complaint was also successful.

When it happened a third time, she reached out to the Ombudsperson.

Listen to the interview with Jay Chalke on All Points West :

Chalke said the repetitive complaints process to overturn the suspension was concerning, and the fact the ministry did not consider whether there were others in her same position eligible for similar exemptions.

"The ministry only applied to her and only for that specific time period and required her to go back a second time. More broadly, they did not apply the ruling to other people who were similarly situated to the complainant who came to us," he said.

"That was unjust and oppressive."

Looking ahead

Chalke said situations like this can arise when extremely complex government operating policies don't reflect the fundamental premise of the law.

While the ministry is working to remedy the unlawful policy by reimbursing recipients and looking at systemic issues, Chalke said there are more broad ways to prevent situations like this one from happening in the future.

"Certainly, transparency is important. Having proper oversight is important," he said.

"We welcome people who have concerns about the decisions made at the ministry to come to us and we'll investigate."

With files from All Points West

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