Despite a damning report that describes the Hamilton Ontario Works office as suffering from low morale, non-existent communications, poor business practices and failure to meet provincial standards; there was little comment from members of Council who got their first look at the year-old report last month.
The 234-page report by SHS consulting which was delivered to staff a year ago, but only shown to council recently; found little to praise in the operation of the offices, which administers social assistance benefits to approximately 13,000 residents, writing, “There was clear consensus in all focus groups that little is working well in the current structure.”
The report was heavily redacted, but nonetheless clearly painted a picture of a culture where staff are focused on signing people up for benefits but ignoring the second half of the department’s provincial mandate of getting people off benefits and on the road to self-sufficiency. Part of the problem, the report says is that the benefits function and the back-to-work functions are separated in slios. “Financial assistance and employment assistance are, in effect, two sides of the same coin under the legislation; however, with staff in each program area physically separated in Hamilton, and with a spirit of competition rather than collaboration characterizing the relationship between them, it seems clear that staff are not collaborating in a manner that would support the client’s shortest path towards sustainable employment.”
The 2015 catastrophic province-wide introduction of the Social Assistance Management System (SAMS) software system by the Ministry has created havoc with agencies across the province. The system has been plagued with bugs and requires much more input work by front line staff than the previous system. “Case Managers feel bad that they are spending most of their time, during the verification appointment in particular, doing data entry and paying more attention to their work instructions and mouse clicking,” than in interaction with clients, the report continued. “Staff in multiple focus groups noted that while they used to look forward to going to work, or used to love their jobs, they dread coming into work now…because of the stress of SAMS in the current working environment. But the report suggests that many workplace problems existed in the Hamilton operation before the introduction of the SAMS system. Staff told the consultants that they didn’t feel supported by management in their struggles with SAMS.
The report described what it called a “culture of consultation” where managers are obsessed with enforcing the city of Hamilton “City s Corporate Culture Pillar initiative, “ in particular the sensational service’ pillar, which the report says has been used as an excuse to justify serving clients who have not held up their obligations under the Ontario Works program. Case managers were told they have to meet with clients who show up very late for appointments, citing ‘the spectacular service’ pillar even though punctuality would be a prerequisite in the real workplace.
The report noted that 30 temporary staffers who were hired to help manage a spike in caseload following the 2008 recession, have remained on staff even though caseloads have returned to normal levels. In this, Hamilton was not unique as other municipalities have also kept the temporary staff, citing the extra workload created by SAMS. Staff are recommending that only 14 positions be eliminated.
The report recommends combining the intake and benefits eligibility function with the mandate to focus on re-employment and creating self-sufficiency, and to better balance the case load among case managers. The report also suggested that the City take a hard look at the Career Development Centre– the back to work office that currently employs 67; suggesting there are numerous third party agencies in Hamilton who could assume this function.
The report described staff morale as “very negative,” adding, “.The level of trust and communication required to create resiliency to change are simply not there, especially at the frontlines where staff feel unsupported by management in their work and learning.” The report it says the bad morale and lack of leadership was exacerbated by SAMS but it clearly had existed before the introduction of SAMS.
The report came before the General Issues committee on March 22nd, but with the exception of Clr. Donna Skelly councillors seemed reluctant to tackle any of the issues raised. Skelly read excerpts from the report and asked staff why a report with such serious implications was not revealed to council for a year—prompting Councillor Matthew Green to suggest that Skelly was engaging in “conspiracy theories.” Overall though, councillors had little to say and ultimately simply voted to receive the report.