December 2, 2014
Honourable Kevin Daniel Flynn
Ministry of Labour
14th Floor, 400 University Avenue
Dear Minister Flynn:
Re: Health & Safety Issues – Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW)
Serious health and safety issues now affect the mental and physical condition of workers at ODSP offices across Ontario. Similar problems are also faced by OPSEU members working in OW. The problems are being caused by the recently implemented Social Assistance Management System (SAMS) computer program.
SAMS is flawed and very difficult to manoeuver. There are constant error messages, frozen screens, shut-downs, etc. Each day, staff is issued reports of a huge number of glitches, bugs and other issues. They are then expected to attempt a manual resolution of the deficiencies.
The issues are exacerbated by the fact that, when SAMS was launched on November 12, the Ministry of Community and Social Services failed to provide caseworkers in ODSP with adequate training.
As a result, there have been many adverse effects: increased incidents of frustration, anger, crying, early departure due to illness and increased sick leave. In addition, mental and physical effects include headaches, memory and concentration lapses.
Given these immediate effects from SAMS, OPSEU anticipates that serious health and safety changes, including chronic conditions, will follow. These cause suffering within the workforce; decrease work satisfaction and effectiveness; add costs and increases in the possibility of innocent errors. Instead of a win/win, the effect of SAMS has created a lose/lose scenario.
This has a collateral effect on clients and the services ODSP and OW provides, especially during the already stressful December period.
Let’s consider some examples. As part of this ODSP “Modernization” program, Welfare Field Workers were advised in October 2010 that caseloads would average 240-260 clients per worker. This would ensure compliance with the OPS Customer Service Standards. Even with this commitment, caseloads now are 20% above this at the 290-310 level. The situation is becoming untenable. This requires decisive action from the Ministry of Labour.
Similar work levels and stresses exist in the OW program for caseworkers and clients alike.
Mental health issues are not excluded from the Act. OPSEU asserts that ignoring these issues is an affront to requirements in the Act under which Employers have a general obligation to ensure the existence and maintenance of a “healthy and safe” workplace.
OPSEU believes public service worksites should be an example for the goals Ontario expects all workplaces to achieve. Where the worksites are those of the Ministry, this connection is immediate and direct. In the case of municipalities with OW, similar connections and initiatives must also apply.
OPSEU also notes that the MOL’s mandate letter from the Premier includes supporting mental health of employees by engaging with companies to learn about and develop strong workplace mental health programs that enhance the well-being of workers in Ontario. Prevention is part of this mandate. Work organization, demands, and workplace support are just a few organizational factors that are identified as psychosocial hazards in the January 13, 2012 Canadian standard, “Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.”
OPSEU is now filing grievances about this issue, on behalf of many ODSP staff. Health and Safety grievances and complaints may also arise with OW workers. In time, the grievances may remedy some problems and compensate staff for their losses. Even so, added remedial steps are needed now. These could be undertaken by the Ministry of Labour through Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act and Regulations with Ministry enforcement of worker rights under legislation. Otherwise, damage to worker health will mount.
The Ministry of Labour must insist that municipalities and the ODSP’s ministry and management develop and maintain healthy and safe workplaces.
One way to provide time for a resolution would be to revert to the pre-existing system (still in operation for many 1st Nations who have opted out) while SAMS is perfected and needed training is completed.
To date, work refusals have yet to be invoked by staff. This is becoming an urgent situation for which this measure may be required. As stated in legislation, a worker may refuse to work or do particular work where he or she has reason to believe that, (a) any equipment, machine, device or thing the worker is to use or operate is likely to endanger himself, herself or another worker.
The “thing” in this case is the SAMS program. The “thing” is endangering ODSP and OW staff.
Workers should not suffer the consequences, if the only reason that this hazard is not being enforced is the Ministry’s failure to train their inspectors, or authorize them to assess organizational factors that cause chronic mental stress for workers. OPSEU needs to know that workers can rely on the Ministry of Labour to ensure employers take reasonable precautions in protecting workers’ health and safety.
OPSEU’s ODSP and OW members have every right to expect action from the Ministry of Labour. In this case, it means that the Ministry must insist that Employers provide reasonable, adequate supports, and worker autonomy with the introduction of new workplace systems, rules, and expectations.
Signatures on original letter
Warren (Smokey) Thomas