Non-profits that care for clients with disabilities say they're in crisis
For-profit agency Brandon Support Services sees big funding increase
And while those groups struggle to pay their bills, a for-profit agency doing similar work has seen its budget grow substantially.
Non-profit agencies in Manitoba have been pressing the provincial government for years to increase funding so they can pay higher wages and attract or retain staff.
A consultant's report last year revealed that 13 non-profit agencies admitted they had been "forced to hire untrained or incompetent staff because of an inability to compete with other employers at current funding levels.
But a private company, Brandon Support Services Ltd., has seen its provincial funding grow from $1.6 million in 2006, to $9.7 million in 2014.
"I don't think it's fair at all," said Jason Dyck, executive director of the non-profit Prairie Partners Inc. in Boissevain.
"I question the motives of government as to why they invested so much money and continue to invest so much money into a for-profit organization when they do have 105 non-profit community agencies in this province that are prepared to fill that void," Dyck said.
Philosophical debate emerges
The growth by the only for-profit agency has set off a philosophical debate among agencies that provide care for nearly 6,000 of the province's most vulnerable people.
Brandon Support Services president Barry Foster attributed the growth in his business to the growing need for services, and what he calls the inability or unwillingness of non-profit agencies to take on clients with complex needs.
"The part that really kind of gets to me is that they like to complain about us, yet on the other hand I'm there because they refuse to take on new clients or take on the expertise that they would need to handle these new clients."
Dyck counters that many non-profits would gladly take on more clients if they could.
"We can't afford to because we're not being funded adequately to even provide the supports for even the existing people we are supporting," Dyck said.
'There is no fairness'
Foster disagreed with a report commissioned by the non-profit agencies in the Westman Parklands Network a year ago that concluded his company was being paid at a higher rate than the non-profit agencies were.
"There is no fairness," said Brenda Elmes, executive director of Brandon Community Options, a non-profit agency.
"Many of our agencies were scrambling and at the verge of closing their doors because they were so inadequately funded. So when you see that one agency was more than adequately funded and the rest were not, that's where the real inequalities occur," said Elmes.
Agencies started to run deficits, the report found, when they increased their wages to be able to hire staff.
In January of this year, the Family Services Department increased its allotment for hourly wages from $12.06 to $12.50 per hour — a rate the agencies said cannot compete with wages in a part of the province where the oil industry had increased the cost of living and labour.
Hard to recruit, retain
The report quoted one agency saying, "If you had the choice to tube feed people, use lifts to move people, assist with toileting, and deal with behavioural issues for a $12.06 per hour or make $12 to $15 per hour making sandwiches for Subway, which would you do?"
It's very, very hard to recruit and retain staff at those low wages.- Brenda Elmes, Brandon Community Options
"It's very, very hard to recruit and retain staff at those low wages," Elmes said.
"The recommendation was in 2003 to have that increased to an average of $15 an hour and here we are, a decade, over a decade later, and we're still battling that battle."
The province will boost hourly wages to $13 per hour in July and suggests it will rise to between $13 and $14 per hour by 2017, which is still less than the recommended $15.
The Westman Parklands consultant report last year said the majority of agencies estimated they needed $15- to $17-an-hour wages to attract and retain qualified staff.
Forced to hire 'incompetent staff'
The report also found the majority of agencies "have indicated they have been forced to hire untrained or incompetent staff due to an inability to compete with other employers at current funding levels."
The province points out that in addition to the wage enhancement announced, the government also boosted funding by a total of $2.3 million to some of the Westman Parkland region non-profit agencies in recent years.
Despite the improvements, Dyck said the funding crisis is far from over and is province-wide in scope.
"I would say we're hobbling around on crutches at the moment," he said.
When the Westman Parklands area non-profit agencies met in Brandon earlier this month, 11 of 14 of them indicated they were expecting they would finish this year with an operating deficit.
As for why the for-profit agency Brandon Support Services has seen its provincial funding grow more than the non-profits, the province has a rationale.
A spokesperson for the family services department said the company provides "supports in group home settings for people with very high needs, as well as crisis stabilization and clinical resources for individuals in the Brandon area. These are high cost services, that are required, and these services are not available anywhere else."
One thing that people on both sides of the ideological divide can agree on is that there is still a funding crisis.
It's not over-the-top profitable by any stretch of the imagination.- Barry Foster, Brandon Support Services Ltd.
"I feel the pinch, believe me. It's not over-the-top profitable by any stretch of the imagination," Foster said.
He points out his company's Service Purchase Agreement with the province limits the amount of profits to BSS. If those profits are exceeded, he has to pay the money back.
The province says so far no repayments have been required.
"This is going to sound hokey, I know, but it's not just about the money," Foster said, saying clients and staff are the priorities.
For Dyck, there's a philosophical issue around providing services to people with disabilities.
"We don't believe that for-profit organizations should be delivering services in this sector. It should be communities doing it. It should be non-profit. People shouldn't be profiting on providing supports for the most vulnerable in the province," he said.