Staff at the city of Ottawa have racked up overtime, called in sick and struggled with a new software system to pay people on social assistance in the capital, and clients say they're "losing patience," CBC News has learned.
The government of Ontario imposed the new technology platform, called "social assistance management system," on Nov. 11, 2014, across the province. It manages case files, including benefit payments for hundreds of Ottawa recipients of Ontario Disability Support Programs and Ontario Works.
But the SAMS software, which deputy mayor Mark Taylor said staff are calling 'Slow as Molasses,' has been plagued with problems.
Newly disclosed internal city emails obtained by CBC News through an access to information request reveal that in the weeks leading up to the switch to SAMS, staff at the city expressed "a lot of anxiety" to their boss about the new system.
"As many of you are experiencing first hand there have been multiple issues with SAMS implementation across the province," wrote Marlynne Ferguson, the city's manager of community and social services, in an email to staff 10 days after the system went live.
The problems led to a memo sent to the mayor and city council on Nov. 20, 2014, warning that "at this point there are many unresolved issues that could potentially impact month-end payments to clients."
A city official describes employees in an email as "frustrated," "stressed" and "tired" with a system riddled with bugs. Three months after the switch, the city’s offices were "nowhere near business as usual," according to internal communications.
On the last business day of the month, people on social assistance in Ontario usually receive their payment. But with the new computer system in place, CBC News reported millions of dollars in unauthorized payments were sent out.
Ottawa was one of the first cities to receive a provincial support team to help staff work through the problems with a "SWAT team" approach, according to an internal email.
But despite the support team, some staff did not show up for work. Ferguson, their boss, visited three of the four offices in Ottawa. "When I am talking to folks I can hear the stress and tension that people are experiencing," Ferguson wrote in a newsletter to staff.
The day hundreds of people were given their cheques on Dec. 2, 2014, was a "difficult day," Ferguson said in a staff email.
A month into the new system, the city experienced three times its normal call volume and had to process more than 300 cheques manually because of software issues. The SAMS system only worked 46 per cent of the time, which led to a backlog of 141 applications and staff working overtime.
An email to staff reveals the mayor spoke to Community and Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek about the issue. City councillor Mark Taylor was also in contact with the minister’s office.
On Dec. 9, 2014, city councillors were notified that the ministry formally announced it would provide Ottawa $221,900 to offset overtime costs incurred and expected in the coming months. The city said it planned to put some of the money into front-line resources.
"When I speak with you it is evident that you are facing daily challenges, that clients are losing patience, that you are tired," Ferguson emailed staff.
"Unfortunately at this point the common feeling is that we cannot count on SAMS. Many of you come to work everyday with the hope that things will get better: the system will improve, bugs will be repaired, clients will get their cheques."
Heading into the holidays, Ferguson told staff she’s extremely disappointed that the provincial government had not announced a timeline to improve the new technology.
System still had bugs in February
Cheque day in February had problems again.
"Many of you are dealing with clients whose level of frustration is increasing because it’s the third month in this system and they are seeing no improvement," said Ferguson.
"Nowhere in the province did anyone anticipate that the SAMS implementation would roll out as it has," said Aaron Burry, general manager of community and social services, in an update to staff.
The city is focused on developing strategies to balance client service needs and staff concerns as they move forward over the next half year.
Burry said the provincial government has finally acknowledged there are "substantial issues" and that a group is working to solve a priority list of problems.
As of March 19, the backlog is down to 12 cases.
But a report from city council last month estimated the annual cost estimate to manage the system and ensure people got their cheques on time would be $4 million. So far, the province has given the city $443,775 in implementation funding for 2014 and 2015.
For clients like Charlotte Taylor, who relies on her Ontario Works cheque to help pay her rent and groceries, the uncertainty about when the cheques will arrive has been nerve-racking.
"It's creating more stress, it's building anxiety for me," Taylor said.