Saskatchewan·In Depth

Sask. government defends income assistance, votes down paid sick leave pitch

The Saskatchewan government is defending its social income support program and its position on paid sick leave after Opposition calls for changes.

Income assistance client facing eviction calls program 'nightmare'

Frank Francoeur spoke at the legislature on Thursday. He has received an eviction notice and is critical of the government's changes to income assistance through the Saskatchewan Income Support program. NDP social services critic Meara Conway, left, says the program is not enough and is leading to homelessness. (Adam Hunter/CBC)

The Saskatchewan government is defending its social income support program and its position on paid sick leave after Opposition calls for changes.

On Thursday, the Opposition NDP's critic for social services Meara Conway again argued that the government should scrap its Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program.

Conway's request is not new. SIS has been a running concern for clients on income assistance, landlords and anti-poverty advocates. Rallies and marches have been held since the clients transferred to SIS from other income support programs last August.

Those advocating for changes have identified two issues with SIS: rent no longer goes directly to landlords, and the amount provided is not nearly enough to cover rent and utilities.

They have argued these changes are leading to homelessness.

On Thursday, Conway introduced two single parents facing these challenges.

Frank Francoeur, a single father of two, told the media he received an eviction notice and has packed his things with no idea where he will go at the end of the month.

"I had no issues with the [social assistance program] as it was structured with Regina Housing [Authority]. SIS is a nightmare. It is really a nightmare."

Francoeur said when the changes were made, his rent through the Regina Housing Authority increased and he was forced to pay arrears, which led to the eviction.

He said he paid his bills on time and did not realize the increased rent cost of nearly $200 when he transitioned to the new program last year.

The cost of rent and utilities eats up his shelter benefit, he said, leaving him dipping into his food and expenses benefit to cover the cost of his utilities. 

Francoeur said he is on a budget and relies on the food bank.

Kelly Anderson, a single mother, joined Francoeur as a guest of the Opposition. She said that before SIS, she had enough money to get by.

"I had my utilities paid. My rent was paid. If I couldn't afford to get as many groceries as I needed, there was the food bank, there were other alternatives. But now I can't even afford to pay my utilities."

She said she fears an eviction notice could be in her future and that she might have her power cut due to not having enough money to pay her bills.

"When I was phoning [SaskPower] I thought, 'Do I take the $100 for my income tax rebate and put it on my bill, or do I go buy myself a tent because I may need to live in it?"

The government has made some changes to SIS. In November, it provided direct payment of rent and utilities to high-needs clients at risk of homelessness.

In this year's budget, the government increased basic benefits by $30 per month and shelter benefits by $25 per month.

On average, an adult living in Regina or Saskatoon could receive as much as $600 a month for shelter and utilities, and another $315 a month for food and all other expenses — although the amount each person receives is determined on a case-by-case basis and the person's circumstances are reviewed each month.

On Thursday, Finance Minister Donna Harpauer defended the government's handling of SIS and said government officials would meet with Francoeur and Anderson to discuss their circumstances.

"It's an income assistance program of last resort. There are always clients, I know as being the minister [of social services] in the past, that may have a change in circumstances and may not understand the change to the program."

Harpauer said the number of people on income assistance "fluctuates" with the economy and will depend on available jobs in a jurisdiction.

She said the government compares its programs for social assistance to other provinces and said what it offers is "among the highest," while the province also has one of the lowest costs of living.

Last month a rally and march was held in Regina by people calling for changes to the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program. The opposition wants the program scrapped. (Cory Coleman/CBC)

Harpauer said the government is constantly reviewing its program, and that is why it has increased the funding in the most recent budget.

Saskatchewan, like almost every other province, does not tie its assistance programs to inflation. Quebec and New Brunswick do.

Conway said the pressures of current inflation are only exacerbating existing issues with SIS.

She would like to see the utilities benefit separated from the rental benefit, and for all amounts to be increased. 

"It is not enough, and we said from the beginning a buck a day is not enough. It does not make up the difference the cuts that SIS represented," Conway said.

The previous program replaced by SIS had not seen "significant increases" since 2006, she said.

"Think of the increased cost of living since 2006, let alone the recent increase in the cost of living due to inflation and the affordability crisis. It's mind-boggling. It's cruel."

Conway said Francoeur receives more because he is a single parent with two kids, and even though he lives in subsidized housing, he still faces eviction.

"It's impossible. No amount of budgeting, no amount of penny-pinching can get people to make ends meet," Conway said.

Government votes against paid sick leave bill

The Opposition also made a pitch to the government Thursday to amend the Saskatchewan Employment Act to provide paid sick leave to workers.

On Thursday, Jennifer Bowes, the NDP MLA for Saskatoon University, introduced a private member's bill calling for 10 annual paid sick leave days.

The bill was voted down by Saskatchewan Party government members Thursday morning as labour representatives looked on from the gallery.

Before the vote, Bowes argued that taxpayers cover sick leave for MLAs and that workers in the province should receive the same coverage.

"Over half of Saskatchewan workers don't have paid sick days. It is many more than just minimum wage workers," she said.

Paid leave would keep workers healthy, reduce turnover and improve working conditions, and would not greatly affect profitability, said Bowes.

Before the vote, Minister of Labour Don Morgan indicated the government was not in favour of paid sick leave.

"We value the work that our employees do in both the public sector and the private sector and we want to make sure they are adequately compensated, so we introduced a change to the minimum wage," he said.

Earlier this month, the government announced the minimum wage would increase to $13 per hour in October and by another $1 in each of the next two years.

"We want to make sure we don't have too many other things that create an additional burden for employers as we come out of the pandemic," Morgan said.

Morgan said there are other benefits programs people may be able to access depending on their circumstances.

He said he hoped the federal government would have continued offering its Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which expired on May 7 along with other federal COVID-19 benefit programs.

"I don't know why they would do that. COVID is not over," Morgan said. 

"The pandemic is something we will now learn to live with. It is an ongoing thing. I don't know how many people in the [press] gallery have had it, but most of us have had a bad week."