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3,700 people were wrongly denied income-assistance money

Ombudsperson Jay Chalke. (via Times Colonist)

An estimated 3,700 people on income assistance whose monthly earnings were suspended when they worked will be reimbursed by the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.

On Tuesday, B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke released a report of an investigation into a complaint that the ministry had improperly imposed a one-month suspension of the earnings exemption.

The exemption is designed to encourage and support income-assistance recipients to work by allowing them to keep limited amounts of earned income over and above their monthly income-assistance payments.

Chalke found that a ministry policy that imposed a one-month hiatus on the earnings exemption for individuals with variable earnings contravened the Employment and Assistance Regulation.

His investigation found that even though the ministry was aware that the policy was inconsistent with the law, it continued to apply it. The policy had widespread impact, resulting in more than 500 instances a year of individuals being denied up to $700 since 2012.

“It is fundamental to public administration that when law and policy collide, law prevails,” said Chalke. “That didn’t happen, and as a result, vulnerable people were negatively impacted. Going forward, as we recommended in this report, the ministry needs to make sure that when a recurring or systemic mistake is identified, proper consideration is given to applying remedies to all affected individuals.”

The report makes four recommendations, including ensuring the ministry amends the relevant earnings exemption policy to comply with the law. It also recommended that by Oct. 1 the ministry reimburse all income-assistance recipients whose benefits were improperly calculated.

“I am pleased that the ministry has accepted all of our recommendations, and that, as a result, the ministry’s policy is being changed to ensure that its decisions about eligibility for the earnings exemption are consistent with the ministry’s legal framework,” said Chalke.

“The ministry has also committed to identifying and reimbursing an estimated 3,700 income-assistance recipients who over the years received less income assistance than they should have,” said Chalke, adding that his office will continue to monitor the recommendations in the report and will report publicly on progress.

– Louise Dickson, Times Colonist