Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Speech after long silence - Ontario Works, again

Forgive the quote from Yeats in the title. I couldn't think of a better way to say I'm back from a long hiatus. I ceased blogging two years ago when I realized that almost no one was reading my posts. It seemed pointless to continue without an audience. I was also experiencing the chill of knowing that if I wrote the truth about living poor in Ontario, I was likely to be cut off Welfare. “Ontario Works”, as it is called, a double irony lost on no one.

Suspicion and Surveillance, a report from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work, spells out what OW is really all about.

“Rather than being guided by the principles of universality, needs-based eligibility, and rights and entitlements, the emphasis now is on compulsion, sanctions and obligations...the real intent is to deny access to social assistance and to remove those who are on as quickly as possible.”

Living on OW, whose monthly cheques add up to just a little over $7,000 a year, means living with the daily anxiety of being watched and judged. One is required not only to justify every penny in one's bank account, not only to disclose intimate details of one’s personal and social life, not only to participate in futile and irrelevant job seminars, one is also expected to be, in the words of my worker, to whom I just spoke, “...out there, every day, all day, looking for whatever work you can find.”

The chief means by which OW enforces its agenda is “non-compliance”. In order to receive even so much as a penny, one has to sign an agreement stating that one will, quite simply, do everything OW demands. Non-compliance with any directive from one’s case worker means no cheque. (It is difficult to know which allusion in “non-compliance” is more ominous: the echoes of Nazi Germany and 1984, or the pitiless totalinarianism of the Borg—“You will comply!”) Forced signing of an agreement is tantamount to a contract entered into under duress—void under the law, but when you’re handing welfare cheques to bums, who cares about the law?

I’ve just spoken with my worker, a woman named Claudette Gamache, and been threatened with non-compliance. Again. Roused from sleep when she called—the upstairs neighbours have been keeping me up late for months— I was unable to muster my usual composure and got angry with her. Here's the story.

Last February, after months and months of not hearing from her, Ms. Gamache called me in for an update of my file. Right off the bat, she made the delay into my fault. Why was I to blame? I asked her. I’d made no changes in my financial or living arrangements, and was keeping my eyes open for possible employment. She tippy-tapped at her computer, shook her head, and began muttering about “seeing no movement on this file.” More pecking at the computer, and she accused me of not complying with an order to see an employment specialist—2-1/2 years prior! I had, in fact, seen the said specialist and attended the prescribed seminar on online employment.

As we continued, further inconsistencies came to light, all pertaining to missing information I had in fact supplied. Throughout the interview, I was treated with suspicion and frequently chastised, the theme always the same: non-compliance and my “attitude”, which Ms. Gamache characterized as, “...if you’re like this in a job interview, it's no wonder you can’t get a job.” I responded that this was not a job interview, and that in a job interview, I would not be being reprimanded for the oversights of others.

Ms. Gamache then said she was going to set me up with an employment specialist and handed me some forms to sign, renewing my so-called agreement with OW.

A week or two later, I received notification in the mail that I had an interview with an employement specialist on Mar. 15, 2013. A day later, I received a second notification that I had a second interview with another employment specialist. The second interview was for Mar. 18—by coincidence, my birthday— at the office of another OW district entirely. At the same time, my mom, who’s 89, was experiencing unusual confusion and memory loss, necessistating an immediate trip to Elora, hundreds of kilometers away, to assess the situation. (She’s fine now.)

I called both employment specialists to advise them I’d have to cancel. As per OW norm, both were out of the office. I left clear and detailed messages, saying I’d call to reschedule as soon as I got back to Ottawa, and asking that the two specialists clear up between them which one I should see. I also left a message with Ms. Gamache (“out of the office for the next three days”) enquiring about the redundant interviews.

It turned out that the forms I signed included an agreement to meet with both an “employment specialist” and an “Ontario employment specialist”, a distinction that still escapes me. Since it was an absurd duplication to see both, I called the second, the one not in my district, and re-explained the situation. She agreed it was peculiar and said that, since I wasn’t even in her district, I just had to go see the one who was.

Upon my return to Ottawa, I rescheduled with employment specialist #1. Shortly thereafter, I received mail notification that I had failed to show up for the original appointment and was about to be held in non-compliance. I called Ms. Gamache and clarified that I had given proper notification of the cancellation and had re-booked.

A few days later, I received a second mail notification, this time from the offices of specialist #2, again threatening me with non-compliance for having not shown up at an interview.

Second letter in hand, I went to my interview with specialist #1. Let's call her Janine. Unlike Ms. Gamache, she deserves privacy in this matter. What transpired was both shocking and surreal.

When I showed up at the OW offices, Janine was in tears. A close relative had died, and OW was refusing to give her the day off. I offered what solace I could during the next hour while Janine soldiered on, so distressed she couldn’t even remember her computer password. I offered to write a letter to the editor about OW’s stunning lack of compassion, but she recoiled, fearful it would cost her job.

During that interview, Janine said that the whole OW system is broken. The case workers are unhappy, the clients needs aren’t being met, and the whole non-compliance thing is nothing more than bullying. Her job is mostly futile, since real employment is scarce in the present economy, and whatever assistance she could be offering job-seekers has been hacked off at the knees by cuts to employment programs. Not that the programs were all that effective, she went on, since they were largely for people with little education or for whom English is still very much a second language. Worse, the system requires everyone to lie: the clients, who cannot possibly live $7,000 a year alone, and the workers who have to pretend they don’t know. She said, and I quote: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and wish for the End of Days.”

She was an intelligent and compassionate woman, and deserved honesty in return. I confided to her that my circumstances were unusual. I’m a classically-trained composer, a published novelist, a former typesetter, and a respected open-source programmer . In order to remain productive in these areas, and to pursue what my friend, Tom, calls a Christ vocation (devoting myself to the service of those in need, both in my community and in my immediate circle), I chose, many years ago, to live a life of poverty. “Living poor,” I call it. I have an overwhelming compulsion to be useful, and to give freely to the world what the world so freely gave to me: intelligence, education, talent, encouragement, and practical support. That none of my areas of training and expertise generate much income does not remove my spiritual obligation to continue practising them. Welfare is a choice for me, not to avoid work, but in order to work meaningfully at all. Of course I’d like to have reasonably-paid employment in one of my fields, but they’ rarified and Fate, more than anything else, decides whether I get wind of anything. In short, I’m a hard worker who relies on welfare because the work I do, while highly appreciated by those who benefit, is rarely paid commensurately with the labour involved.

Janine actually congratulated me on my difficult and unusual choices, and wished aloud that more of the people she sees sitting across her desk were like me. I don’t say that vainly, only with gratitude. We spent the remainder of our hour going through the online postings at several job-banks, the same ones I check at home.

To return to our actual story, at the end of our hour, I showed Janine the non-compliance letter from specialist #2. She agreed it would be absurd for me to repeat everything we’d just done. I asked if she could take care of the matter. She said she would, by speaking to Ms. Gamache and contacting specialist #2. To be on the safe side, I called Ms. Gamache (“This is Claudette Gamache, I'm out of the office...”) and left a message bringing her up to date on my interview with Janine, including what she’d said about the second non-compliance letter.

That, I thought, was the end of it. And for two months, so it seemed. Then, this morning, a call from Ms. Gamache claiming I’d refused to see specialist #2. Refused, as if I hadn’t called, hadn’t left messages, hadn’t kept her posted during the whole silly business. More significantly, I had “refused“ nothing, merely cleared up what seemed like a bureaucratic mix-up. I said as much.

The big stick came out quickly. "I don’t think you realize how serious this is. You’re in non-compliance.” Taken aback, I replied that, to the best of my knowledge, the matter of the superfluous interview had been cleared up months ago. Why was she was she calling now? Her response was to repeat: "You’re in non-compliance. You refused to attend an interview. I’m sending you a letter today.”

Over her continued insistence I was in non-compliance, I endeavoured to remind her of the steps I’d taken to deal with the matter, including my communications with specialist #2, my meeting with Janine, and the phone calls to Ms. Gamache herself. I got cross. Who doesn’t when people won’t acknowledge facts? As once before, she criticized my attitude, something which personally she may have had the right to do, but not when she was speaking for the Ontario Works system. Compliant I may have to be, but nowhere in my agreement is it written that I have to act submissively and keep my voice down, too.

I repeated that the duplicate interview had been taken care of months ago, and that it was a dead issue as far as I was concerned because I hadn’t heard about it since. Why was she raising it now? “There's been no movement on your file,” she replied, non-sequitur. “Look,” I said, “if this is a question of jumping through hoops, by all means, set up another interview. I'll be there. But don't threaten me with non-compliance, and stop using that phrase. It sounds like something out of freaking Orwell.”

Of course it wasn’t the right thing to say, but here’s the interesting fact: what I said was true. OW may coerce people into signing an agreement (they also coerce people into volunteering, in direct contradiction to the meaning of both words), but when they deny the right to speak honestly without fear of reprisal, then it’s clear that a darker agenda is at work than providing income assistance and employment counselling.

It goes without saying that Ms. Gamache’s parting shot, having not once acknowledged anything I’d said, was, “You’re in non-compliance. I'm preparing a letter today.”

1 comment:

  1. this is all true man, I sympathize with you. We live in a brutal social system. These workers at OW are trained to hold our lives back.