In a typical year, provincial budget season lasts from January to early Spring, and includes pre-budget and budget submission periods, meetings, and hearings. ISAC’s Senior Policy Analyst Devorah Kobluk was invited to present to Minister of Finance, MPP Peter Bethlenfalvy on Friday, January 29, 2021, during a morning of budget-focused presentations. Below is the presentation which was given (PDF with endnotes available upon request). ISAC’s full set of recommendations for the 2021 Ontario Budget is forthcoming.
Presentation to the Minister of Finance in advance of the 2021 Ontario Budget
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Devorah Kobluk, speaking to you from Toronto, and I am Senior Policy Analyst at the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a specialty legal clinic funded by Legal Aid Ontario. We have a provincial mandate to advance the rights and interests of low-income Ontarians with respect to income security and employment through test case litigation, policy advocacy, community development and public education.
During the unprecedented COVID-19 public health emergency, we call on the Province to implement the following three recommendations to assist all Ontarians and economic recovery.
First, reinvest provincial savings into social assistance. Even with increased costs, there have been savings from increased federal transfers, from clawbacks on federal benefits and unexpectedly lowered social assistance caseloads. Between March and November 2020, Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program caseloads fell by 16% and 1.4% respectively, for a combined savings of over half a billion dollars. We urge the Minister to immediately reinvest the savings by raising frozen social assistance rates by 3% and reimplementing the short-lived and inconsistently distributed Emergency Benefit. Low-income people will spend these much needed income supports on extra costs associated with living with a disability, groceries that are expected to rise up to 6% this year, and goods and services in their communities to keep the economy going. The province has the money to reinvest in social assistance which is good for all Ontarians.
Second, the province must legislate paid sick days. People on low incomes should not have to choose between health and safety and putting food on the table and paying rent. The data is clear: women, migrant, Black, Indigenous, and racialized peoples are disproportionately over-represented both on the front lines and in COVID-19 infection rates. Without paid sick days they cannot afford to stay home to stay safe and Ontario will not contain virus transmission. We cannot rely on the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which is retroactive, inadequate, and excludes undocumented and migrant workers. We therefore recommend the province legislate universal, accessible and permanent sick days that are fully paid so workers can afford to stay home. We echo the call for 7 paid sick days, plus a minimum of 14 days during the pandemic to allow for the required period to get a test, wait for results, and self-isolate in the case of a positive test. If we want the economy to recover, the province must support all our front-line workers with paid sick days.
Third, we seek a commitment to an ongoing and timely appeal process at the Social Benefits Tribunal. The Tribunal, where OW and ODSP clients and applicants appeal decisions related to eligibility and benefits is one of the most important avenues to access justice. Over the last couple of years, the number of adjudicators at the SBT has been reduced significantly causing lengthy delays. Having people who live in deep poverty wait over a year for a hearing to receive benefits causes undue hardship, especially during a pandemic. We therefore recommend that the province immediately appoint a full complement of adjudicators to the Tribunal.
Thank you for your audience.