A Sarnia, Ontario, woman and her disabled son are appealing to the province's Human Rights Tribunal to force a local agency to pay him more than the 46 cents [$0.35 USD] an hour he's been earning for his work. Erla McCormick says that rate—23 times lower than Ontario's minimum wage of $10.79 an hour—is what her son Kris has earned at a workshop for adults with intellectual disabilities over the past ten years.
"I can't start my car for that, so how is he expected to make a life that way?" she said in an interview with VICE.
Kris, a soft-spoken 38-year-old, helps make crates, cremation boxes, surveyors' stakes, and similar items at Wawanosh Enterprises, a special workshop run by the local agency that supports adults like Kris and their families, his mother explained. A recent paycheck gave Kris $12 for 28 hours he spent at the workshop, run by Community Living Sarnia-Lambton.
"The idea that paying 46 cents an hour because someone has a disability is a clear violation of the [Ontario Human Rights] Code," said Toronto lawyer Mindy Noble, who launched the application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for the McCormicks. The McCormicks are asking for $25,000 [$19,000 USD] for damages to Kris's dignity, and for him to be paid minimum wage in the future, Noble told VICE.
The Tribunal will hear the case, only the second of its kind in the province, next March in Sarnia.
In 2014, Noble's group, the Human Rights Legal Support Centre of Toronto, helped a developmentally delayed woman from St. Catharines, Ontario get a judgement for over $180,000 [$136,000 USD] in back wages and damages. The tribunal found that the woman, Terri-Lynn Garrie, was discriminated against at her job in a packaging plant. She earned only $1.25 an hour, while others without disabilities doing the same job alongside her earned minimum wage. However, Garrie has not collected a cent so far because the company closed, and her employers declared personal bankruptcy, Noble says.
Community Living is defending its payment program, saying it is not a workplace.
The Wawanosh workshop in Sarnia is a "day support program" for people with disabilities like Kris, and isn't like a workplace, said John Hagens, executive director of the Community Living agency. His clients spend some of their time with sewing or woodworking tasks, and the products are sold to help fund the program, he says. But they also have valuable social time they might not get otherwise during their days at Wawanosh, and work only when they want to, he added. The money is not a wage, but rather an honorarium, paid no matter how many hours the clients work, Hagens says.
Erla McCormick agrees the service is a respite for parents and caregivers, and clients don't work all day long, but she feels they should be paid minimum wage during the time they are actually making items that will be sold.
Paying minimum wage is not an expense "that's going to break [Community Living]," she said. If Kris isn't doing paid labor at the workshop, his mother wants to know why he gets a pay stub, a T4 slip each year, and why EI contributions are deducted from his meager checks?
"It's not like he's ever going to be able to collect employment insurance when he's contributing so little every two weeks," she said.
Hagens was quoted earlier this year saying the agency makes $100,000-$150,000 [$76,000-$114,000 USD] from sales of the products annually, though he declined to confirm that to VICE, saying, "I don't see any point in that [question]."
Hagens declined to comment on the specifics of Kris McCormick's case, saying his agency will address all questions when the hearing is held next year.
Kris has never had a raise during the ten years he's been attending the Wawanosh center, Erla says, even though she has approached the agency at least three times. "They just say they're working on it, but nothing ever happens," she said.
Surprisingly, the senior brass in the Community Living network are sympathetic to the McCormicks. The days of sheltered workshops such as Wawanosh are coming to a fitting end, according to Michael Bach, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living. It's time to "move beyond" the workshop idea and to get disabled adults into the regular workforce, he argued. While he won't criticize the Sarnia agency, Bach told me in an interview from his Toronto office that "we're pushing to get [sheltered workshops] closed."
"That segregation option is a hangover from the 1960s," he said. In those days, no one really believed adults with intellectual disabilities would take part in the labor market, he explained, but today "our vision is one of inclusion."
Trying to get real employment for those with disabilities is the focus of an ambitious program the CACL has recently launched called Ready, Willing, and Able (RWA). Workers with the new plan are reaching out to businesses in 20 locations across Canada to see if they can employ Community Living clients. The RWA plan began as a pilot project in the York Region north of Toronto and in Peterborough in 2013-14, and a larger version of the program has been running now for over a year, reaching out to the leadership of national chains across Canada such as Costco, Home Depot, and Travelodge.
In the last year, around 400 clients of Community Living or with the Canadian Autism Spectrum Association have found full or part-time jobs through the program, according to Don Gallant, national director of RWA. Home Depot is hiring clients with both groups in 39 stores in major Canadian cities, and the Value Village chain is hiring in 20 stores across Canada, he said. The owners of Travelodge motels will add jobs for developmentally disabled people in over 30 places, he added.
Yet both Gallant and Bach admit there's a long way to go. Bach estimates up to 45,000 Canadians are attending day programs similar to the Wawanosh workshop in Sarnia and sees Erla and Kris McCormick's appeal to the Human Rights Tribunal as a "positive step."
"People are saying there is something wrong and they need to question the system," he said. He said he hopes the outcome of the case will "require everyone to find a new path."
Still, there will need to be a transition time from workshop to real work.
"We don't just want to close the door, shut out the lights, and say no one can come back (to the workshops)," he said.
However, the Ready, Willing, and Able program hasn't come to Sarnia, and Erla McCormick says the local agency is doing a poor job of helping her son find stable employment. "For three years I haven't heard from Community Living" about helping Kris find work.
"He's taken his resumes out himself," she told me during a meeting at her home. When Kris had an interview with a local restaurant, his mother asked for an agency worker to go with him.
"His speech isn't 100 percent, you know," she said.
No worker even returned her phone call, and when Kris went back for the interview he was told the job was filled.
It's not as if Kris can't work. His frustrated mother goes down a long list of her son's previous experience: janitor, restaurant dishwasher, auto shop worker, farm laborer, compost site laborer.
Still, Community Living found Kris his latest job carrying an outdoor advertising sign for an oil change shop only after the family launched the human rights complaint, his mother said.
Hagens said his staff are doing their best to get adults like Kris into the workforce, adding that he believes they are doing so with "a fair bit of success." He said the agency is placing nearly 20 people in permanent jobs each year in Sarnia.
Erla McCormick says work is more than just the key to financial independence for disabled adults. It also helps them become full members of society, she said.
Since Kris started his recent sign-carrying job, "he's a changed guy," she said. He's more comfortable about doing many things in life, and likes to take his Mom out for dinner, and even buy her a lottery ticket occasionally.
"I just want Kris to feel good about himself."
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