Chris Cobb Ottawa Citizen, March 23, 2015
In the face of a public and political backlash, the Conservative government has reinstated a program that will allow 50 developmentally disabled Ottawa workers to continue sorting and disposing of waste federal documents.
The new contract between the Public Works and Government Services Canada and the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities (OCAPDD) will last for three years and be renewable.
Pierre Poilievre, minister of employment and social development and regional minister for the National Capital Region, told the Citizen on Sunday that despite the digital age, government still generates plenty of sensitive documents that need disposing of.
“There is nothing more inspiring than people determined to work hard and contribute despite the obstacles life puts in their way,” he said. “Such is the case for 50 extraordinary Canadians who have sorted and shredded sensitive government documents for over three decades. This work must be done and they do it well.”
The work will continue at the federal complex at Tunney’s Pasture once renovations at the paper sorting plant have finished, said Poilievre.
The federal government had been scrambling to find a solution since the Citizen broke the story last week that the 50 had been thrown out of work.
Public reaction, much of it directed at the Conservative government, was furious and fierce.
Poilievre said he, too, was shocked to hear his government had killed the jobs of the workers, some of whom have worked at the plant since the program began 35 years ago.
“When I learned that their contract was winding down,” he said, “I immediately pulled all those involved together to find a solution that would keep these great Canadians working. Officials have worked hard to identify two departments (his own and Canadian Heritage) that will use the group’s service. Other departments may be added, and there will be plenty of paper to manage.
“The work will have real value,” he said.
But Poilievre added that the thorny issue of the $1.15 paid the workers was a matter for OCAPDD and not the government.
The value of the contract $124,600 will not change.
The workers share the money, making about $2,000 a year each as an ‘honorarium.’
Aside from anger at the apparent callous way the workers were treated, much of the public outrage has been around that lowly equivalent payment of $1.15 an hour.
An Ontario government announcement mid-week that the provincial minimum wage will be increased to $11.25 in the fall only served to emphasize what many critics see as an inequity.
The province funds the salaries of two OCAPDD staff to supervise and counsel the workers, who also receive provincial disability payments in the $800- to $1,000-a-month range, depending on their circumstances.
Ontario also pays their health and dental coverage.
OCAPDD executive director Dave Ferguson said the government’s decision to continue the program “will allow us to continue our work of assisting these individuals in developing work and life skills and allowing them to meaningfully contribute to their community.”
Although some workers have left to take minimum wage-paying jobs, Ferguson said, his organization has always considered the paper plant work as a training opportunity, not full time work.
“Other agencies around the province have similar programs,” he said.
The paper plant work has a value to the workers that is beyond money, added Ferguson, and while some workers function at a high level, others do not have the capacity to take jobs in the mainstream workforce.
“But if the federal and provincial governments came to us and said, ‘Let’s pay these people minimum wage’, then of course I’d be open to it,” he said.
Since the story broke last week, many corporations, small businesses and individuals have approached OCAPDD with offers of employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled, added Ferguson.