The province should adopt special provisions exempting employers from paying the minimum wage to workers with special needs, Ottawa disabilities and estate planning lawyer Kenneth Pope tells AdvocateDaily.com.
The objective for people with disabilities is to be in the community, interacting with others through work, says Pope, principal of Kenneth C. Pope Law, who frequently represents families of children with disabilities.
Minimum wage laws are hurting special needs persons from integrating into their communities because employers have either cut their hours or their jobs," he says.
"People who have disabilities want the same things we all want: a job, a significant other, a place to live and all the normal things," Pope says.
The provincial government recently announced changes to the Ontario Disabilities Support Program (ODSP), which impacts how much recipients can earn before their benefits are affected.
With the changes, ODSP recipients will be able to earn $6,000 a year before any clawback, an increase from the current $200 per month flat rate, in addition to a 25 per cent exemption for earnings above $6,000, reports the Ottawa Citizen.
"Most people receiving ODSP benefits work for a modest amount each month," Pope says. "The point isn’t to be self-sufficient — it’s getting out of the house, socializing, and doing a good job. People with disabilities tend to arrive on time, do their best, and work and play well with others.”
He says before the changes were introduced, the ODSP maximum annual income before being cut off was $30,456. The new maximum is $24,704.
"To put this in perspective, working a standard 1,800-hour year at minimum wage of $14 equals $25,200," Pope says.
He suggests that by allowing employers to pay a lower wage, it will both encourage them to hire workers who are disabled and enable people receiving the ODSP to have meaningful work without impacting their benefits.
Very few people receiving ODSP can work full-time, and one of the tests to be eligible for the program is the person cannot function in a competitive workplace, Pope says.
But significantly, the main issue that makes it difficult for people with special needs is not desire or physical limitations so much as the $14-an-hour minimum wage, he says.
"The implementation of the minimum wage has hampered young people with disabilities who have had their hours were cut back or their jobs lost," Pope says. "There should be a special dispensation and flexibility for people with special needs in the employment sphere."
The priority for people with special needs is fitting into the workplace and having the opportunity to socialize with others, he says.
"This has drawn attention to the fact that people with disabilities should be treated specially," Pope says. "There should be appropriate accommodations and accessibilities for them.”
About one in 10 Ontario families has a person with special needs, he says.
"My client families were very upset when the minimum wage was raised and made applicable to sheltered or accommodating workplaces," he says, adding that the minimum wage increase has made it untenable for many employers to continue to offer work to people with disabilities.
This is the hidden issue in the employment sphere, Pope says.
"Employers are not social workers, but they are humane beings with extended families that certainly include people with disabilities," he says. "They aren’t operating in a social vacuum, but they can’t pay people money they aren’t making. That doesn’t mean that they wouldn't be prepared to have someone in the workplace making what contributions they can if they don’t have to pay them more than a nominal amount."
Pope recently told University of Windsor radio station CJAM-FM that he foresees the Ford administration will reverse what he says is an impediment for people with special needs.
"What we need is a regime that allows and encourages people to work," he says. "My clients' kids just want a shot at being in the workforce.