Part IV - A Deeper Look at GLI: Who Can Work?

Chandra's picture

This web feature is Part IV in a series looking at the assumptions we have about guaranteed livable income. The first feature deconstructed the question of whether people would work if they had income security. Part II examined the issue of whether people have a right to income security, regardless of activity. Part III considered the availability of jobs in Canada, and concluded that it is not reasonable to assume every person can have a job that will meet their needs.

Crying girlIn the first three web features in this series, we examined the issue of what counts as work and whether or not people have a right to have their basic needs met regardless participation in paid employment. We also considered the fact that there are not enough jobs for every Canadian who wants one. These are two powerful arguments against attaching employment conditions to GLI. But there is a third, equally powerful argument: a GLI must be unconditional because we aren’t all that good at making the distinctions that conditions require. Determining who is and who is not fit enough to work is not easy, and is often accomplished badly.

My husband has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Like most people with CFS, he has good days and bad days. On the bad days, even getting out of bed can be hard. Since his diagnosis, he has been off work for extended periods of time and back at work for awhile. The biggest challenge is the unpredictability of his health – he never knows when he will have a good day or a bad day. For full-time employment, when showing up every day is not optional, CFS is a significant obstacle. Yet if an uninformed observer saw him standing in line at the grocery store, they would think he looked healthy and normal.

Marie White, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, shared a similar story at the Senate Roundtable on guaranteed annual income. She has multiple sclerosis, a condition as arbitrary as CFS: “I can work for three years and suddenly I cannot work for three weeks.”

A colleague, Rob Rainer of Canada Without Poverty (formally the National Anti-Poverty Organization), described to the Senators how his daughter’s Asperger’s syndrome will present significant challenges to employment, yet it is not visible at a glance. “The idea of someone behind a Plexiglas panel making a decision about someone’s life – on what basis would they decide?” asked Rob.

There are some who believe income security programs must distinguish between those who have a disability and those who are “expected to work.” Many provincial social assistance programs already make this distinction. Even those arguing for alternatives to our present social security regime reject the idea of a guaranteed livable income (GLI) for the reason that it does not make a distinction. For instance, the Caledon Institute would support an income security program for those with disabilities but not for those expected to work.

But Rob’s point gets to the heart of the problem: how are policy makers and bureaucrats capable of deciding whether or not someone is able to engage in full-time employment? The consequences of that decision could cast someone into poverty.

The three examples above are all related to physical disabilities that are not highly visible. Now imagine how mental disabilities or mental health problems might be even less visible. How is an official who is distanced from the person able to pronounce someone ready to work or not? How does the decision contribute to the stigmas associated with needing social support or having a disability?

According to Jim Mulvale of the University of Regina, this approach is failing in Saskatchewan. “We have all kinds of problems with people getting put in the wrong program, getting deprived of necessary supports, being considered to be work ready when perhaps they are not or, in some cases, the opposite.”

The emphasis on paid employment versus full income security also prevents people from taking progressive steps to enter the workforce. Volunteering at a local organization might help some people develop the skills and self-confidence necessary to make the jump into the paid workforce, but it won’t give them income. Others might be able to handle part-time or contract work, but that won’t necessarily be enough to pay the bills and could disqualify them for social assistance or other programs.

A GLI would not disqualify people from working if they could, or from taking steps to get into the paid labour force. But it would also refrain from punishing people if they couldn’t participate in the paid workforce, for any reason, for any length of time.

The basic rights of every person demand such support. The poor track record of our capability to judge others and their ability to work suggests that employment conditions are the equivalent of condemning some people to poverty. Income security must be unconditional and universal.

Chandra Pasma is CPJ's former Public Justice Policy Analyst.


Submitted by Michael on
Chandra, are there any other factors than a doctor's note/statement taken into account by bureaucrats when making a decision on whether or not a person is able to engage in full-time employment?

Submitted by Chandra on
Thanks, Michael, that's a good question. Most disability income support programs have their own specific definitions of eligibility that an applicant must meet, in addition to merely having a disability. Let me give you two examples. For Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefits, you must have a disability that is "severe and prolonged," that prevents you from working at any job on a regular basis. Applicants fill out a package that includes a questionnaire about work history and medical conditions and a medical report for your doctor. Then "Service Delivery Specialists" (basically nurses trained to understand the policy) evaluate the application based on the medical condition, the impact of the condition or treatment on your availability for work, personal characteristics, and work performance. In 2005, a House of Commons committee questioned this process, finding that the decisions were arbitrary and inconsistent. They also questioned the fairness of a process in which the decision-makers never meet the applicant, and nurses are given the power to over-rule interpretations of medical information given by doctors. In Ontario, the first step in obtaining Ontario Disability Support Program is a financial check to ensure that you are in financial need. Then a Disability Determination Package must be filled out and sent to the Disability Adjudication Unit. The DAU determines whether or not you have a disability and whether or not your disability is substantial enough to prevent you from working. The DAU is composed of nurses, Occupational Therapists, and rehabilitation counselors. The package of information you send them includes two forms to be filled out by your doctor, and a self-report form. Again, this is a centralized operation, with no contact between the adjudicators and you, the applicant. The DAU has been criticized as inconsistent in its decisions and not always transparent about its criteria, as well as for a tendency to discount family doctors. So even if you have a clear diagnosis from your doctor, the process of applying for benefits still represents a serious hurdle. Imagine how much harder it is for those who can't get a clear cut diagnosis.

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