Breaking down the barriers to employment

This morning’s Toronto Star includes a front page story about how Ontario’s employment training programs shut out half of the province’s unemployed. The problem is that strict eligibility criteria mean that Employment Ontario’s job training supports are only available to people who are receiving employment insurance benefits, and this excludes a large number of unemployed people who are on social assistance or who are otherwise not eligible for EI (for example, if they have not worked enough hours to qualify or were recently self-employed).

Creating adequate employment supports for people on social assistance is a challenge that the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario is trying to solve. In their recent discussion paper they suggested that employment supports for people on social assistance could be provided by Employment Ontario. The provincial government picked up this idea and in the recent budget announced that they would proceed with this amalgamation.

Providing combined employment supports may work for some unemployed people. Employment Ontario generally does a good job at supporting people who are recently unemployed. For example, somebody who is on EI because they have recently been made redundant, needs to update their resume and be linked to potential employers is ideally suited for Employment Ontario’s services.

The challenge, however, is that people on social assistance often face more significant barriers to employment. People on Ontario Works have usually been unemployed for longer periods and may need more comprehensive employment and job skills training than someone who is recently unemployed. Supports should include in-depth career counseling; access to grants, bursaries, loans for training and education; and loan flexibility and forgiveness.

People who have disabilities often require even more comprehensive supports on top of employment training, such as liaising with employers about their particular workplace needs and how to ensure that they can maintain good health while working. For people with episodic or chronic conditions, this can be a significant challenge and flexibility in employment arrangements is required.

It is also important to remember that supports to help people into employment or training must take into account people’s broader needs and enable people to find good jobs that support good health, not just entry level jobs without health benefits. In order to create long-term workforce attachment people on social assistance need supports like subsidized child care, early learning programs, transportation allowances, and respite care.

In our submissions to the Commission we argued that the key to solving these challenges is to create person-centred supports that take into account that people on social assistance have different needs, risks, and pathways out of poverty. While streamlining the social assistance system is necessary to ensure that people can access the opportunities available to them, we cannot move to a one-size-fits-all solution.

As the government moves to integrate employment supports in Employment Ontario, we urge them to ensure that they keep health in the front of their minds and to remember that different people have different needs. This will ensure that people who find themselves unemployed are able to access a range of supports that enable people to move into the workforce in a way that supports good health.