Hamilton residents evicted due to faulty software: Whitehead

Hamiltonians have been evicted and their hydro cut off as a result of a controversial new computer system to manage local social assistance cases.

'We are talking about human tragedy here,' Coun. Whitehead said

Coun. Terry Whitehead says he's heard of Hamilton residents being evicted because of problems with a new social assistance computer system. (CBC)

Hamiltonians have been evicted and their hydro cut off as a result of a controversial new computer system to manage local social assistance cases, says a city councillor who has toured social assistance offices.

Coun. Terry Whitehead of Ward 8 toured four local Ontario Works (OW) offices to hear about the new Social Assistance Management System (SAMS). He says he heard stories about people receiving their social assistance money late, resulting in them being evicted from their homes.

He heard of deceased recipients getting letters, he said, and people getting utilities cut off.

“We are talking about human tragedy here,” he said.

Whitehead told city council about his experiences on Wednesday as OW workers wiped away tears in the audience. Council voted that Mayor Fred Eisenberger will write a letter to the province encouraging it to revert to the old system until the new one is adequate.

The province spent $240 million to implement the new system, which handles OW and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments. The new system was installed on Nov. 12 and caused daily problems, workers say. It’s taking hours to do what used to be a quick task.

On Wednesday, OPSEU — which represents ODSP workers in Hamilton — announced that it would seek a court injunction to go back to the old system. OPSEU estimates that thousands of clients in Ontario have been impacted by late or incorrect payments, or the system's inability to process new requests for things such as bus fare for medical appointments or a winter clothing allowance for clients starting new jobs.

"Despite our repeated warnings, the Ministry of Community and Social Services went ahead and implemented this system, which in turn disadvantaged the most vulnerable people in this province," union president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said in a news release.

'Hours and hours and hours and hours' on one task

In Hamilton, workers are stressed and fed up, said Sandra Walker, president of CUPE local 5167, which represents about 300 local OW workers.

“They’re spending hours and hours and hours and hours trying to do one simple task,” she said.

“I’m glad that politically it’s become of interest. I really only think that our collective voices are going to do anything.”

Joe-Anne Priel, the city’s general manager of community and social services, is among several bureaucrats urging Ontario to go back to its old system. Jack Brown, the city’s Ontario Works director, told council that what residents and staff are going through is “just terrible.”

“I’ve worked at the city for 40 years, and I’ve never come across a disaster like this."

Province stands by its software

Coun. Matthew Green toured the OW offices too, and said he saw the “human cost this is having for people from Ward 3.” He estimates that the majority of calls he receives lately are because of SAMS.

The Ministry of Community and Social Services issued a statement on Wednesday in response to OPSEU, stating that December payments are on schedule, and listing steps the ministry has taken to address the problem. They include:

  • A payment hotline, which Ontario Works staff can call to receive support for any specific functional issues they may be encountering
  • An email address for access and login issues
  • Job aids and troubleshooting guides
  • Twice-daily communications updates 
  • Direct technical assistance help lines for Ontario Disability Support Program staff

The ministry is in "daily contact" with municipal service providers to provide support and "a clear understanding of current issues on the ground," the statement said.

"We have already made significant progress in many areas and are dedicating more staff resources to help local offices work through their unique challenges." 

The ministry is standing by the IBM/Curam software, saying it "will deliver social assistance programs more efficiently and allow caseworkers to spend more time helping their clients."