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Community social service agencies grapple with funding shortfall

Sheri Ekholm and her six-year-old son Jason are grateful for the support they receive from Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion and are concerned about the impact of funding shortfalls it is experiencing. The shortfalls are a result, allege community social service agencies, of the provincial government reneging on an agreement it would fund contracted wage increases negotiated before the last election. - Wanda Chow/NewsLeader
Sheri Ekholm and her six-year-old son Jason are grateful for the support they receive from Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion and are concerned about the impact of funding shortfalls it is experiencing. The shortfalls are a result, allege community social service agencies, of the provincial government reneging on an agreement it would fund contracted wage increases negotiated before the last election.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

The client families all describe different ways the Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion (BACI) makes a difference in their lives assisting their loved ones with developmental disabilities.

Wendy Tremblay talks about the much-needed stability BACI gave her brother-in-law George, 54, when his mother died and he had to move into the much different environment she has with her husband and their kids.

She describes George's pride at working at BACI's Action Packaging business, packaging materials for various customers.

Sheri Ekholm speaks of how BACI's support workers have helped socialize her six-year-old son Jason so he can attend daycare and school with other children.

After one-and-a-half years, "there was no more pulling stuff off shelves, he's able to sit with other children, he gets the concept of taking turns."

And Sonya Wachowski talks of how, with her sister Moordryd, BACI has been the "key to unleashing her gifts."

Then they all describe their concern about the major funding shortfall BACI is grappling with which many believe is a result of the provincial government reneging on a promise to pay for wage increases negotiated with staff at community social service agencies last spring.

The families and Burnaby New Democrat MLAs Raj Chouhan, Kathy Corrigan and Jane Shin met with reporters Monday morning to raise awareness of the problem.

The Community Social Services Employers Association, which represents the agencies which assist people with developmental disabilities, signed off on the collective agreement which provided wage increases totalling three per cent.

Chouhan, Burnaby-Edmonds MLA, said those involved, including executive directors from five agencies, claim they only agreed after the provincial government promised to pay for the raises. But after the May provincial election, the government has denied they ever made such a promise and the agencies will just have to find savings to cover the cost.

"I have negotiated collective agreements all my life, especially in the public sector unions, I know employer agency or the union side will never sign an agreement until there is a complete full assurance that the funding would be provided," said Chouhan.

And it couldn't have just been a misunderstanding, said Corrigan, MLA for Burnaby-Deer Lake.

"We have more than one person who was at the bargaining table who say that they were directly told by government that they intended to fund the collective agreement," Corrigan said.

She added that the Public Sector Employers Council, a government organization that needs to approve all public sector employer contracts, also signed off on it even though it showed a 2.6 per cent funding shortfall and deficits aren't permitted.

"Therefore, it seems to me evidence of what everybody's been saying," that the government had promised to pay for the wage hikes, she said.

For BACI, it's resulted in a $420,000 annual shortfall on top of the additional $150,000 shortfall it is struggling with due to increased costs not being covered by the government, such as BC Hydro rate and Medical Services Plan premium hikes, the MLAs say.

That's led to cuts including 30 hours of staffing at its residential services, and cuts to day programs, staff training and administration.

The recently-announced closure of BACI's BC Woodworks program, which gave clients an opportunity to train in the woodworking trade, was not directly a result of the shortfall, but the agency's dire financial situation meant there was no buffer to buy it some time to allow it to continue, said Corrigan.

BACI and other agencies have said they've resorted to not filling maternity or short-term disability leaves, not rehiring for vacant positions and combining positions, said Shin (Burnaby-Lougheed).

Rachel Goddyn, whose 30-year-old son Leslie is a client, said the system has come a long way since people with such disabilities were routinely institutionalized. Clients are thriving now that they're living in the community.

"We're going to lose those tremendous gains we've made if the government can't find a way to keep the system on the rails," Goddyn said.

A request to the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation for comment was answered by David Hurford, spokesperson for Community Living BC (CLBC), the crown corporation that funds agencies supporting people with developmental disabilities.

"We've heard that concern from a few of the service providers as well, so [BACI is] not unique," Hurford said of allegations the government had promised to pay the increases.

He stressed that CLBC was not directly a party to the negotiated contract but that "government has been pretty clear in its statement that all the collective agreements were done within the cooperative gains mandate … and that mandate requires that wage increases are funded through efficiencies within administration."

But with the the estimated shortfall across the sector estimated at $7 million, CLBC has found cost savings to allow it to provide $4 million in short-term assistance to its agencies through covering items such as overtime for the Family Day statutory holiday, and increased municipal pension plan premiums.

In the medium to long term it will work with the agencies to address issues such as the cost of staff training and agency accreditation, Hurford said.

"No matter what happens, no front-line services should be cut."

BACI executive director Richard Faucher did not return a call seeking comment.

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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