Kitchener-Waterloo

Man who missed out on COVID-19 benefit warns others to claim money before it's too late

An Ontario man on social assistance is warning others in his position not to miss out on a provincial emergency benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Benefit cannot be claimed retroactively, province says

A southern Ontario man says he was never made aware of additional financial benefits he could access through Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program for COVID-19-related costs.

An Ontario man on social assistance is warning others in his position not to miss out on a provincial emergency benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Single people on Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program can access an extra $100 a month until the end of July to help with pandemic-related expenses. Families can access up to $200.

But they have to ask for it — and Jason said he didn't know he could.

CBC is calling Jason by his first name because he fears retribution from social assistance and possible online harassment. Jason lives in Hamilton, but is currently in the process of moving to Guelph.

"I had called my worker to inform them that I was moving from one city to another," he said. "She … asked me at that point if I was receiving the COVID benefit. I said, 'What benefit?'"

Extra money needed for grocery delivery, taxis

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services told CBC that it informed people about the extra funds through a news conference, news release, social media posts and information on its website.

It also gave information to its caseworkers. The benefit cannot be claimed retroactively.

Jason hadn't had any reason to talk to his caseworker prior to his pending move, he said.

He also says he had no reason to check the ministry's website.

"I receive monthly stubs from the government, which usually has information about things in it as well," he said. "There was nothing that I saw about a COVID benefit."

Jason has spent extra money since the start of the pandemic on grocery delivery, taxis and Uber in order to avoid grocery stores and transit to ensure he's keeping a physical distance from others as much as possible, he said.

He's disappointed that he missed out on extra funding that would've helped pay for those things, he added.

Barriers to accessing information

"It feels as though they essentially tried to not give it to us by not telling us about it," he said. "When other people are getting, you know, two grand a [month] or whatever off of the CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit] in some cases and, you know, here we are getting our thousand bucks a month to try to scrape by with, it felt kind of like a kick in the teeth a little bit."

The executive director of Waterloo Region Community Legal Services is critical of how the province communicated about the benefit.

People on social assistance face barriers to accessing information, including an inability to afford internet access, Shannon Down explained.

Some use public services like libraries to access the internet, but those were closed due to physical distancing restrictions, she noted.

Down believes people never should've had to ask for the benefit in the first place, she added.

"If it had been up to me, I think I would've made it so that people who are on Ontario Works or on ODSP would've automatically received the benefits as part of their monthly payments," she said.

'Everyone in this province has seen an increase in expenses'

The province "chose not to do that, and so the end result is there will be people out there like this gentlemen, who won't have accessed those benefits, unfortunately," Down said.

Opposition MPPs expressed similar sentiments to Down. Guelph MPP and Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner said he heard from constituents "who were forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get a measly $100 top-up.

"It's even more worrisome to hear that others were left totally in the dark," Schreiner told CBC in an email. "The government should have implemented a universal top-up for everyone on ODSP and OW to raise the benefits to the level that out-of-work Canadians were getting through the CERB."

Lisa Gretzky, the NDPs critic for community and social services, called the government "irresponsible" for not giving the benefit to all social assistance recipients automatically.

"Everyone in this province has seen an increase in expenses," Gretzky said. "Every single person."

The province responds

Asked why the province didn't give the benefit out automatically, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services replied in an email to CBC that "the benefit operates like other social assistance benefits in that clients are required to speak with their caseworker and identify any additional needs in order to receive it.

"Discretionary benefits are provided on a case-by-case basis, based on an individual's needs and circumstances."

Asked to respond to criticism that the government hadn't done enough to let people know about the benefit, the ministry said the emergency benefit was "implemented quickly to respond to emerging needs as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak."

People who missed out on the benefit should contact their caseworker to see if anything can be done, Down said.

If that doesn't work, she also recommended contacting their MPPs as well as her legal clinic.

Jason spoke out, he said, because he wants people to know that they can still access the July benefit until the end of the month.

He'd also love to see the government apply the benefit retroactively to those who missed out, he added.

"The greatest thing would be for them to go, 'You know what? We screwed up. We didn't give these people knowledge that they had access to this. And we didn't just give it to them in the first place like we should have. So how about we go ahead and give them the retro for this?'"

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