The Common Front for Social Justice New Brunswick has sent this letter to Post-Secondary Education, Training, and Labour Minister Trevor Holder in response to his comments regarding the St Thomas University social work program. It is reproduced in full below.
Honorable Trevor A. Holder,
The Common Front for Social Justice read with concern your recently published comments in The Aquinian. In those comments, you blame what you perceive is a “lack of skills” of social workers in the Department of Social Development to “get clients off” social assistance.
Those comments are insensitive to both the lived realities of social workers and to New Brunswickers receiving social assistance. Social workers must do their jobs within the confines of the system – a system that is, frankly, broken. For years, activists and members within our organisation have provided recommendations after recommendations to the government on how to improve the program and reduce barriers to employment. To date, these recommendations have been met with silence.
We want to start with some facts. Your comments actively distort the role and function of the social assistance program. There are, in fact, two streams of social assistance – one is the Extended Benefits program. These recipients will not (re)join the labour force. In the other stream, the transitional assistance program, New Brunswick social workers have actually been very effective in the last decade, reducing cases by 15%, according to a statistical report for New Brunswick.
For people receiving the Transitional Assistance program, there are barriers preventing them from entering the workforce. A major barrier is the Department’s “clawback policy”. The Department of Social Development’s current wage exemption policy only allows single people who are employable to keep their first $150 earned. Their salary is subsequently recovered up to 70%. This policy is punitive and discourages social assistance recipients from working longer hours to improve their financial situation. It is often difficult for employers to hire these people on a part-time basis because of the bureaucracy involved in confirming their income.
We have requested that this policy be amended by the Provincial Cabinet to indicate that, for all social assistance recipients, the Wage Exemption Allowance is $500 per month before the 70% clawback is applied. With more money in their pocket, social assistance recipients will be able to better cover their basic needs. They must be able to keep their salary until it gradually reaches the income level corresponding to a living wage by the Market Basket Measure. Recipients can spend their earned wages locally, improving the economy and their community.
Social workers are not to blame for the problems in our social assistance system. Successive decisions by governments to not build an economy that works for all by keeping the minimum wage low and overall working conditions being kept consistently poor to satisfy business interests at the expense of workers have contributed to a stagnating labour market. At $11.70/hour, the minimum wage is the lowest in the country, a full $7.85/hour less than what is deemed a living wage for the region of Saint John in 2020. Employers are relying more and more on casual work, handing a few shifts here and there, meaning that an individual has to work more than one job to make ends meet. New Brunswickers do not have access to paid sick days.
All of these issues, from changing the “clawback policy”, to the workplace issues that could be addressed through modernizing the Employment Standards Act, are in your power to act on. Legislative changes to this effect, instead of unfairly targeting universities, would do far more for people on social assistance.
Social workers’ job is not to “fix the economy”. That’s yours.
Johanne Petitpas Gabrielle Ross-Marquette
Community Co-Chair Labour Co-Chair