As a support worker at Community Living Algoma, Dawn Bellerose is part of a team that delivers social services to people with developmental disabilities and their families in the Sault Ste. Marie region. This role gives her a frontline understanding of the financial pressures in Ontario’s publicly funded social services and the resulting stresses on individuals, families and employees.
“All Ontario communities are feeling the impact of years of chronic underfunding in social services,” says Bellerose, a member of Local 1880 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). “We can’t provide people with the full range of services they need.”
Developmental services agencies have increasingly adopted a model of “supported independent living” for some of the people they serve – where individuals can live on their own or with a friend or partner, while receiving agency supports and services. Helping individuals achieve a measure of independence is critical, Bellerose says; however, the funding for such living arrangements is often unavailable.
“We’re trying to support them to live in their own homes, but it’s extremely challenging. Too often, we have to tell people ‘no’ because there’s no money,” says Bellerose.
Waiting lists have become very long, she adds. “I have heard stories about some communities in southern Ontario where people have been waiting 20 years to get supported living arrangements. It’s even harder for people who have multiple disabilities who require complex supports.”
Developmental services are one category of social services delivered by around 35,000 CUPE members across the province. Members also deliver assistance to women and children fleeing domestic violence, staff shelters, protect children from harm and neglect, provide employment counselling or HIV and AIDS education, and deliver social assistance. Employers range from small non-profit communities to large social assistance programs and municipalities.
No matter what the service or type of agency, the cumulative effect of long-term underfunding has widened the gap between community needs and organizations’ capacity to meet demand, says Fred Hahn, the President of CUPE Ontario.
“For people who use social services, wait lists have become the norm,” Hahn says. “And agencies are trying to deliver services by cobbling together a patchwork of funding from different sources – funding that has often remained flat for many years.
“A zero budget increase is basically a cut because inflation makes it more costly to operate. Some agencies have gone through 10 or 12 years with no increase, so they’re at the breaking point.”
CUPE is concerned about the impact of funding pressures on its members, who are often directed to make everything work by increasing “efficiency” and “cost-effectiveness.” Hahn says these business models have no place in an agency serving vulnerable and often marginalized people.
“The stress for workers is incredibly high,” he says. “In addition to the work itself – dealing with people in crisis – employees have to deal with the systemic weaknesses that prevent them from doing their jobs to their full capacity, and that is also draining.”
Salaries in social services are also generally lower than in other public sector services, such as health care and education, which creates a gender pay gap, as most social services employees are women. Social-service experts often talk of a “care penalty” – the fact that people working in community agencies are doing vital but undervalued work.
“People often get into social services work not just as a job, but as a vocation,” says the CUPE Ontario president, who worked in developmental services earlier in his career. “Employees go above and beyond – often putting in their own time and money to help their clients. But this situation can’t be sustained; agencies are finding it harder to find people to do these jobs because of the stresses.”
What will the future be for Ontario’s social services sector under the new Progressive Conservative government? Although the Ford government has yet to detail its plans, CUPE sees warning signs.
The new government recently announced that payments under Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program would increase by only 1.5 per cent and not the 3 per cent planned by the previous government. And Premier Doug Ford has said his government wants to bring new efficiencies to the public service, while also saying there will be no job cuts.
“Let’s be clear: it’s doublespeak to say you can achieve efficiencies in public services and also to say you can do it without losing jobs,” Hahn says.
CUPE’s mission is clear, he adds. “We will track every job and every service that is lost and will make sure this government is held accountable for every one of them.
“Our job is to make sure the impacts are made public and that agency workers and families are mobilized in every community to advocate for secure financial foundation for social service users and providers. If the PCs want to be a government of the people, as they say, they need to listen to the people of Ontario and pay attention to their needs.”