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Hamilton official says new social assistance software should be dumped until fixed

The city’s head of social services has written to the province asking it to temporarily bring back the old software system for dealing with social assistance cases after a new one has caused confusion and stress among case workers and clients.
The province should bring back its old system for social assistance cases until it irons out the bugs in its new one, says Hamilton's head of social services.

Hamilton's head of social services says "beyond stressed" social assistance staff are spending 90 per cent of their day dealing with problems caused by a new computer system, and she is urging the province to return to the old one.

Joe-Ann Priel has written to the province urging it to temporarily bring back the old software system for dealing with social assistance cases to prevent further "damage" and a loss of trust in the system. She says the new one has caused confusion and stress among case workers and clients. 

Ontario Works (OW) workers are “beyond stressed out” over the new Social Assistance Management System (SAMS), said Priel, Hamilton’s general manager of community and emergency services, in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CBC Hamilton. And the province should bring back the old system until the glitches are fixed in the new one.

“We are just over two weeks into the implementation of SAMS, and already the human costs are great,” wrote Priel of the $250-million software system.

This is not a journey our clients should have to go on with us. We are dealing with real people here.- Joe-Anne Priel, general manager of community and social services, City of Hamilton

"This is not a journey our clients should have to go on with us. We are dealing with real people here, and the system has to enable us to provide quality service and meet client needs now — not several months from now when all of the system errors and glitches have been addressed. 

"We are concerned that the longer we try to make this system work, the more damage will be done, the further behind we will get, and that trust in the system will continue to erode."

Janet Menard, the Peel Region's commissioner of Human Services, has also written to the province.

SAMS, which the province rolled out over four years, took effect on Nov. 12. Unions tell horror stories about the system, including 73 clicks to add a child to an Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) recipient’s file, 16 pages of bugs in two weeks and hours spent on tasks that used to take a few minutes.

Some ODSP clients in Windsor report not receiving their monthly payments Friday, although there are no reports of missed deposits in Hamilton. Local OW workers have had to manually validate cheques though, said Sandra Walker, president of CUPE local 5167, which represents the city’s roughly 400 OW case workers.

In some cases, she said, they’ve bypassed calculating extra income earned by clients just to get the cheques distributed in time.

$1,788 overpayment

Priel wrote that the “overall health and well-being” of staff is declining, and that some are spending 90 per cent of their day troubleshooting to ensure that clients receive their payments.

The new system erroneously generated at least 17,000 payments, totalling $20 million. The city did send out some cheques for inaccurate amounts earlier this month, but has corrected them, city spokesperson Mike Kirkopoulos said this week.

One ODSP recipient received a cheque for $1,788 too much, said Laura Cattari, a local poverty activist and ODSP recipient. Others report case workers not returning phone calls because they're busy with the new system.

All city OW recipients appear to have gotten their payments as scheduled, Walker said.

The province implemented the new system because it was cheaper than upgrading the old one, said Gloria Er-Chua, spokesperson for the Ministry of Community and Social Services, in an email this week. SAMS includes an online portal where clients can check their own files and correspondence. 

'Core system is working well'

"SAMS is a very important new system which replaces an aged and inadequate technology platform," she said. "SAMS will better support staff that deliver social assistance services and improve customer service."

The ministry is quickly fixing any issues and has provided extra staff to ODSP offices, she said. 

"To date, the core system is working well."

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

The system impacts about 11,000 employees and nearly a million social assistance recipients. 

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