Renfrew parents demand return of minimum wage exemption for people with disabilities

People with intellectual disabilities are about to lose jobs at Renfrew Community Living that pay them below minimum wage, and their parents are trying to make it an election issue.

Sheltered workshops, other arrangements allowed people to be paid below minimum wage

Travis Tachynsky is losing his job sorting recycling and doing other tasks at Renfrew Community Living because of a change to Ontario's labour law that disallowed paying below minimum wage to people with intellectual disabilities. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

A group of parents in Renfrew, Ont., want provincial politicians to save their children's jobs by restoring an exemption in Ontario labour law that had allowed them to work for less than minimum wage.

The exemption enabled people with intellectual disabilities to be employed in sheltered workshops to do irregular work with community agencies for a few dollars an hour.

The Liberals' Fairer Workplaces, Better Jobs Act eliminated the exemption, and also increased Ontario's minimum wage.

Travis Tachynsky sorts recycling at Community Living Renfrew, but he will lose his job May 31 because the organization can't afford to pay him $14 an hour.

He's "sad and disappointed" and would like to keep working at the local support group or find a job elsewhere in the community, he said.

'Don't have the time or the money to help'

His mother, Charlene Riopelle Badour, said that despite support from Renfrew businesses, none have been able to employ Tachynsky.

"It just doesn't happen. I've asked a lot of the people here who have businesses if they would employ these kids. They just don't have the time or the money to help them," she said.

Charlene Riopelle Badour has been leading the charge to get the minimum wage exemption back for people with intellectual disabilities. 0:20

Riopelle Badour said the group doesn't want anybody who can do the work to lose the protection of the minimum wage, but their children won't be able to get work otherwise.

"My son is 37. He can't read or write. He's not worth $14 an hour, but he is worth something," she said.

Lisa Duggan's 29-year-old son Alex loads and unloads the dishwasher at the community living centre and will also lose his job, which pays about $5 an hour.

"He doesn't know his phone number, doesn't know his street address. We have to face the fact that he's not worth $14, but he is worth that $5 and he would like that $5 an hour back and his self-worth. More than anything, it's their self-worth and a purpose," she said.

Pitch to Ford

Riopelle Badour and Duggan are part of the group of parents who brought up the issue at Doug Ford's recent rally in Renfrew.

Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford met with a group of Renfrew parents and individuals with intellectual disabilities at his recent rally. (Christine Riopelle Badour/Supplied)

Riopelle Badour said Ford promised to look at how changes in the law have affected individuals with intellectual disabilities. She said he clasped her hand and told her he is a man of his word.

"I told him I'm a woman of my word and if you tell me you're going to do something, I will be your worst nightmare if you don't," she said.

In a statement to CBC News, the Ontario PC party said they will consult with the community and experts on whether the exemption can be put back into labour law.

The PCs said the Liberals didn't listen to experts who testified in committee or the organizations who pleaded with the government to keep sheltered workshops open.

'People being devalued'

Chris Beesley is CEO of Community Living Ontario, the provincial arm of several local groups founded by parents to assist people with intellectual disabilities to integrate into the community.

His organization has been advocating against the sheltered workshop model for decades, despite having developed it as training and job experience program in the 1970s, he said.

"We talk about people being devalued who have intellectual and development disabilities. This is literally devaluing them in terms of paying them pennies on the dollar," he said.

"There just has to be recognition that if it is a job, it needs to be paid like a job."

Alex Duggan's job loading and unloading the dishwasher will end May 31 because of the labour law changes. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Beesley, who has a son with intellectual disabilities, said the individuals and parents in Renfrew should have more support to transition to meaningful community involvement or employment.

"I feel for parents who are in this place, and their kids, who feel they are under siege," he said.

But he said the government needs to provide funding to reduce employment barriers for people with disabilities and provide more support for employers hiring them. He does not want to see the exemption return.

"If you want to roll back human and civil rights, then I guess we can look at a whole bunch of groups then," he said.

Liberals, NDP support transition

Jackie Agnew, the Liberal candidate for Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke, said the time for people with developmental delays to be denied the same employment standards as other has passed.

The government has been moving away from sheltered workshops since 2015 and the final legal steps to end the model will come into effect in 2019.

In a statement, Angew said the transition will be difficult for some agencies, but the party wants to help agencies find alternatives. 

The Ontario NDP said they will increase funding to non-profit community groups that improve access to employment, income and quality of life for people with intellectual disabilities.

The Renfrew parents are organizing a rally June 2.