Social assistance case workers in Hamilton and across Ontario fear their clients will receive cheques for the wrong amount — or not at all — on Friday because of what they say is a chaotic new software system implemented by the province.

The province has spent $240 million implementing new case management software for Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) workers. Friday is the first time ODSP clients will receive their monthly cheques since its Nov. 12 implementation. In Hamilton, most OW recipients also get their money on Friday.

'As is often the case with any large transition, we have been experiencing issues with this changeover.' - Mike Kirkopoulos, City of Hamilton

But unions, politicians and local officials describe an ordeal that includes mailing out benefits cheques for the wrong amount, tearful workers taking stress leave, staff having to validate cheques by hand and 16 pages of bug fixes in two weeks.

“We’re dealing with people who are disabled, very poor and don’t have a loud voice,” said Anne Leach, a member of the ministry employee relations committee with OPSEU, which represents ODSP workers. “(Workers) are leaving in tears. It’s wild. It’s just wild.”

The Ministry of Community and Social Services said while there had been " challenges" during the implementation, it expected everyone would get paid on time, and in full.

"The payments are on track for delivery as per the usual process," said spokesperson Gloria Er-Chua in an email to CBC Hamilton.

To try to head off any problems the ministry is sending extra staff into local offices and giving municipalities that have asked extra money and support.

Four year rollout

The province has spent four years rolling out the new Social Assistance Management System software. Workers were trained on it in January, CUPE and OPSEU officials say. But the software wasn’t implemented until Nov. 12.

Since then, the unions say, there have been daily problems. Some of the client information wasn’t transferred from the old system to the new one, said Tara Langford, chair of the OPSEU sector that represents municipal members. That’s caused confusion between case workers and clients.

Just adding a child to an ODSP client’s case file takes 73 clicks, said Cindy Forster, Welland MPP and NDP critic for the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

'It takes two hours to do the same thing it use to take me five minutes to do.' - Anne Leach, OPSEU

The system has prompted letters to be sent to clients without workers' knowledge, Leach said. Then “we’re scrambling to figure out what they’re calling about.” Also at issue: each cheque now bears a code that includes the partial name of the worker who authorized it.

OW and ODSP recipients receive monthly cheques to cover main living expenses. They also receive cheques for special needs, such as health care or transportation.

Worried some won't get their cheques

ODSP recipients will receive their monthly cheques for living expenses on Friday. Most Hamilton OW recipients receive their money via direct deposit, which also happens on Friday.

Forster fears the worst, which is clients not receiving their cheques at all, “and then what do they do?” she said. “It takes a long time to then get through the system and get somebody to address those errors.”

The city has experienced “challenges,” said spokesperson Mike Kirkopoulos. Staff is working hard to iron out issues and, in some cases, is manually validate cheques.

There have been cheques sent out for the wrong amount, he said, but those issues are being corrected.

“As is often the case with any large transition, we have been experiencing issues with this changeover,” he said. “Municipalities across the province are experiencing similar challenges.”

City is 'preparing contingency plans'

In Hamilton, OW case workers are city employees. ODSP workers are provincial employees.

'It has been crazy, and that’s putting it mildly.' - Anne Leach

The city’s 410 OW workers are “preparing contingency plans” to make sure clients get paid on time, Kirkopoulos said. “Our priority remains the well-being of our residents.”

The city is also using methods such as letters and cheque inserts to inform clients of how the change “may impact them."

It’s too early to know if the new system will cost the city money through overtime or otherwise, he said.

Some municipalities have asked for money to help, Er-Chua said. The ministry is providing them with one-time, 100-per cent funding and administrative relief. 

The province is also funding municipalities 50/50 to prepare sites for the new system, she said, and has added 47 temporary staff to local ODSP offices.

Leach has heard of Hamilton ODSP staff leaving for stress or illness-related reasons because of the software, although Kirkopoulos and local union officials couldn’t confirm that.

'It has been crazy, and that's putting it mildly'

“It takes two hours to do the same thing it use to take me five minutes to do,” she said. “The key strokes are insane. It’s not resistance to change or fatigue.”

“It has been crazy, and that’s putting it mildly.”

The system is designed to make case work more efficient, and to allow case workers "more face-to-face time with their clients," said Ted McMeekin, former Minister of Community and Social Services and MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale. 

He said he's heard few complaints about the new system. Any bugs, he said, are being "eradicated quickly."

"The system is up and functioning reasonably well with the exception of a few glitches, which are being sorted out," he said.

The system produced its first run of ODSP cheques on Nov. 18, and the ministry added "extra validation" locally and provincially to make sure it went smoothly.

The implementation has been a success so far, Er-Chua said. "To date, the core system is working well."

But "we acknowledge that there have been challenges that we are working through and we continue to provide the necessary supports to local offices."

The province changed the system because the previous one was old and inadequate, she said. And the new system was "more cost effective" than upgrading the old one. It includes an online portal clients can use to review their case information and correspondence. 

Langford wants the province to reveal the true cost of the new system.

“They did not implement a fully functional system, and there needs to be some accountability.”

The system impacts about 11,000 provincial employees who are dealing with nearly one million social assistance cases in Ontario.