I was originally going to be clever and write “Mr. Rocheleau Goes To Ottawa” until realizing I’m e-mailing federal AND provincial members of Parliament. Ah well… maybe one day.
Anyway, After writing my blog entry about the Ontario Disability Support Program’s punitive rules against those collecting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit last week, many people urged me to sent it to our local members of Parliament. Before getting around to it, I published a follow-up to further explain some other rules and it pushed back my progress.
I finally got around to the letter on Friday and just wanted to post it here for prosperity’s sake. It’s sort of a smooshed together version of my last two entries with some extra thoughts to flesh it out. Have a read and feel free to leave your own comments below if you wish. You may also share it amongst yourselves too, I would love it if this whole thing gained some traction even.
To whom it may concern,
I’m writing this letter today to express my disappointment over how those of us on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) have been treated during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I’m a 37-year-old freelance journalist who writes local articles for a website in the Windsor-Essex area and was the first blind graduate (to my knowledge) from St. Clair College’s journalism program. It’s not to brag, trust me, I just wanted to give you a little bit of background on myself.
Anyway, I’ve been on ODSP since living with my parents back in 2002 and was still on it when I married my fully-abled wife in 2013. While she works at a local restaurant and we live in an apartment, I am still very much dependant on this social assistance today.
When the pandemic began in March, we were instantly alarmed since both of us are considered high-risk. My wife is asthmatic and I am type one diabetic. In addition to the latter, I have several medical issues from birth that landed me in the hospital any time I got bronchitis, pneumonia or even bronchopneumonia while growing up. Common colds often worsened to this point and while it isn’t as severe now, I can only imagine what contracting Covid-19 might do to me.
When the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was announced, we were both relieved my wife would qualify and be able to take a leave from work. She checked with her doctor’s office and they assured her she wouldn’t need a doctor’s note since Premier Doug Ford said publicly that anyone could step away from their job if their health and safety was at risk.
Being on ODSP though, we also had to call our local office and find out how CERB might impact my monthly income. My case worker wasn’t in and they didn’t know how it would be handled so we were asked to call back in a week. My wife did so and, while my case worker still wasn’t in, someone taking his place told us they were treating CERB as income. Of course, the provincial government itself hadn’t given them any official directives at the time, so that’s how they were interpreting the benefit in our area.
A few weeks later, a story broke about someone who had their ODSP suspended entirely because he went on CERB. The provincial government hastily made an announcement to stop any clawbacks as they assessed the situation. Less than a week later, they reversed the decision and began treating CERB as income officially.
This meant that 50% of gross income started getting taken instead of the net income received by CERB (excluding the usual $200 exemption for monthly income.) They said they would reinvest the money but only did so by giving extra cash to those who had been working all along: People who weren’t on CERB got an extra $200 for May, June and July. So in the end, it was of no use to us because my wife left work and began receiving CERB when it started in April.
Now, after being on CERB for three months, she’ll be going back to work next week because we can no longer make ends meet. The risk of contracting Covid-19 is still very real of course, but the choice has been taken out of our hands. Either she works or else we don’t have enough cash to survive. For all of Doug Ford’s declarations regarding how jobs will be kept for employees who need to leave for their own health, they are completely meaningless under a system that punishes people for being responsible.
To further illustrate my point, here’s a breakdown of our most recent month of finances. Since you all know how a benefit unit works I’m assuming, I’ll skip that part. When my wife was working, we would each get $100 from our work-related benefit since I write articles as well. So right off the top, that’s $100 taken away from our monthly budget.
Now focusing on the $2,000 from CERB, $200 is exempt. After that, ODSP claws back 50% of $1,800 and since the federal money is taxable, we were setting aside $400 a month to be safe when income tax season rolls around. So that would leave us with $700 and whatever we get from ODSP for the month. In July, we were given $950 so that means we would need to survive on $1,650 when our rent alone is above $1,000. We also live in Tecumseh (or Windsor to those outside of the region) so I can’t even imagine how people manage in high rent areas like Toronto.
Not only is this extremely tight, ODSP doesn’t provide a break down of how they got their number for what a recipient receives. A couple of months ago, we received a statement that made it seem like $700 of our CERB would be exempt. Skip to July and they clawed back $900 instead. Without anything to show how the numbers add up, how do you even dispute what they give you? This also makes budgeting nearly impossible.
Another huge complication is that CERB is issued a week into the month. This means it bleeds into the next while ODSP looks at income and provides the pension on a monthly basis. So we technically get $2,000 all at once in the monthly period, but a week of that four week lump sum is intended for the next month. We asked how to take this into consideration when filling out my monthly income report and never received a response from anyone. I’m not surprised either: Case workers are slammed and ODSP offices were only open four hours Monday-to-Friday the last time we checked. I don’t understand why you would make case workers harder to contact during a time of increased stress and uncertainty for the vulnerable and disabled.
It just gets frustrating to know that we did our part to stay safe and essentially would’ve been further ahead financially if we hadn’t. My wife would’ve gotten extra money from ODSP while still getting her usual income from work but at the risk of our health. How does that even begin to make sense? Not only that, her actual work income is taxed before being claimed for ODSP so 50% of her net income would’ve been clawed back, not 50% of gross income like on CERB.
Then even the one-time federal payment for people with disabilities has stalled. It wouldn’t have solved all our problems, but we would’ve received $600 and that’s a lot when you really need it. Unfortunately, the plan was stopped dead in its tracks by the Conservatives in an attempt to bring back in-house sittings of Parliament. Since then, it’s only been mentioned a handful of times and I can’t remember how long it’s been at this point. Even the NDP, who pressured the Liberals to put this forward have stopped talking about it.
It just becomes really hard not to feel like an afterthought when every level of government sweeps your needs under the rug. Media barely covers these situations either, so where do you go to be heard? That’s why I am writing all of you today. It doesn’t even matter to me who makes the first move, it’s far past the time where political parties on all ends of the spectrum and at every level work together, doing something for disabled and vulnerable Canadians. I’m tired of being punished for my health, disability and even being married because of ODSP’s punitive rules.
These specific issues are just after three months of CERB as well. Cases are winding down in the immediate area but what if there’s a second wave that’s worse this winter? We already know we can’t make this work financially if my wife leaves again. Having a job is great but you know what’s better? Not needing to put your health at risk because there’s not an other option afforded to you. It shouldn’t matter what social level you’re at. Anyone who is high risk needs to be taken care of and protected.
All of my friends and family are probably tired of hearing me complain about the pandemic or government and I get it: I’m getting kind of tired of hearing myself at this point. It isn’t something we get a break from or that will magically go away in a few months though. Being permanently disabled, I have to deal with these issues for the rest of my life. This isn’t to diminish what anyone else is going through, I’m just tired of feeling like my story isn’t important enough to be told or heard.
This complacency when it comes to people with disabilities makes me angry. I’m tired of hearing people say we milk the system even though it hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation for as long as I’ve been on it. That’s not even factoring in the most recent cost of living increases and soaring grocery bills during the pandemic. (We were actually supposed to get a whopping 3% increase in ODSP income back in 2018… until the Doug Ford government slashed it in half to 1.5% along with other previous advancements.)
I’m not trying to gain sympathy or special treatment. I just want to be looked at like a human being who isn’t a victim of their disability. I have as little control over it now as I did when losing my eyesight almost 19-years-ago. I’m not a leech, I’m someone trying to persevere despite living below the poverty line.
Getting CERB while on the support program has been stressful, made finances a challenge and impacted our mental health. Having a job is great but it doesn’t make our situation any easier by a long shot. I know Doug Ford thinks the best social assistance is “getting a job” because he seemed rather proud of that chestnut. What he didn’t consider or maybe care about was how much of a slap in the face it was to those of us who are working our asses off to try and make ends meet… only to continue getting left in the dust.
Thank you all so much for your time, consideration and respect. If you’ve managed to make it all the way through this novel without clicking delete, you certainly have mine.