Dr. Wayne Lewchuk has delivered a stinging rebuke to the Ontario government over implementation of its Social Assistance Management System (SAMS). In a 55-page report released July 19, the McMaster University economics professor labelled SAMS a “health and safety disaster.”
The Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS) rolled out the system in November 2014, ignoring warnings from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) that SAMS was deeply flawed. Subsequent malfunctions meant thousands of social assistance recipients failed to receive payments and suffered severe financial hardship.
However, until now, scant attention has been paid to SAMS’ impact on staff. Lewchuk’s report was commissioned by OPSEU in reaction to numerous ongoing concerns from frontline workers in the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works.
“Heavy workloads, error-plagued software and the inability to realize a vision of work that had been promised all combined to create a toxic environment,” Lewchuk says in his report. “Workers at ODSP continue to be exposed to elevated levels of workplace stress, job strain and effort-reward imbalance.” This has led to “deteriorating physical and mental health and deterioration in home life” for employees, he found.
Dylan Lineger, OPSEU co-chair of the committee for employee relations at MCSS, believes the human impacts of SAMS cannot be underestimated or ignored.
“Dr. Lewchuk has shone a light on the health cost our members are paying due to the ministry’s decision to implement a flawed system,” said Lineger. “We’re grateful to Dr. Lewchuk for his report and hope it convinces the employer that there’s a health crisis at ODSP.”
One of Lewchuk’s key recommendations is to provide “the same attention given to health and safety concerns when new factory technology is introduced, or when workers are asked to work with new chemicals and toxins” when new models of work organization or new computer systems are introduced. “They can be just as toxic and damaging to health,” he says in his report.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas believes the root of the SAMS debacle lay in outsourcing the new system.
“Instead of creating something in-house that would build on the years of experience of workers in the field,” he noted, “this private sector-obsessed government brought in an outsider. And they bungled it completely – at a steep cost to social assistance recipients, workers and taxpayers.”