TORONTO - A new computer system tasked with administering social assistance in Ontario is creating "chaos" as staff waste valuable time trying to get it to work rather than helping their clients, the union representing welfare caseworkers says.
Carrie Poole-Cotnam with the Canadian Union of Public Employees said the revelation a bug in the software erroneously queued up $20 million in overpayments to welfare and disability recipients earlier this week was merely the tip of the iceberg.
The $240-million Social Assistance Management System is riddled with "design flaws" that see workers jumping through hoops just to do basic tasks — such as adding a new child to a welfare case, a move which now takes "over 100 steps" from six before, she said Sunday.
Poole-Cotnam said caseworkers are spending "90 per cent of their time on trying to navigate the system" instead of doing their jobs.
And those on welfare are getting the worst of it, she added, not only seeing payments in many instances fail to materialize or come in short but also by losing out on opportunities to connect with services that can improve their lives.
The ministry said in a statement Sunday that recipients who receive their monthly benefit through direct banking have had access to their funds since Friday, while those who receive cheques in the mail are expected to get them by Monday.
"In total, the system successfully processed payments to over 570,000 of our most vulnerable families," it said.
The ministry says additional staff with SAMS expertise have been sent to help out local offices, adding "the ministry continues to address system issues and make necessary adjustments."
It also says that "since before implementation, the ministry has made significant investments in training to help frontline staff prepare for the transition to SAMS."
"Over 11,000 users completed training in SAMS in approximately 257 offices. This extensive training was provided to all municipal and ministry staff that will be using the new system," the ministry said.
Poole-Cotnam, chair of the union's social service committee, said things are so bad in the municipal offices handling welfare that caseworkers are "cracking under pressure" and even missing out on client time.
"There's no point in having someone sit across the desk from you while you're literally trying to fight with the software."
Poole-Cotnam said the problems go beyond the usual "teething pains" for the new program — something on which she said the government provided lacklustre in-person training — but stretch across the board.
"Every single task is more cumbersome," she said. "It doesn't matter how fast you can click the mouse — there are still more steps in the process.
"It's not designed to do what it was supposed to do, which was more one-on-one time, more streamlined" paperwork.
The government needs to acknowledge the system, which handles 570,000 clients, simply isn't working and that major fixes are due — and even look into whether the old system could be brought back for now, Poole-Cotnam said.
A Guelph-area caseworker, who did not want to be named, told The Canadian Press he's not even sure if his clients are getting their money.
"I can't even tell if it's issued a cheque or not. I've come down to almost phoning the clients and saying, 'did you get a cheque? Did you get anything in your bank account?' because I can't even be confident (with) what it's telling me," said the man, who said he is stumped despite being a self-avowed "computer guy."
He said his office "cringes" at the thought of a client coming in with concerns about mistakes or to ask for help with rent as staff are simply befuddled by once-simple tasks — or don't trust the system to perform them.
"People are just in shell shock because we can't do our jobs."
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, representing disability benefits caseworkers, is also sounding the alarm, and says it warned the Liberal government months ago there were "too many flaws." It wants the previous system reinstalled until things are ironed out.
At a legislative committee a week before the Nov. 12 roll-out, Jaczek and high-level ministry staff assured MPPs the system would go smoothly, saying it was five years in the making and had dry runs at "testing centres."
Kira Heineck, head of the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association, said nobody saw such major headaches coming.
"There's going to be a measure of unanticipated difficulty with any new software, but I think the scale of it took everyone by surprise," said Heineck, whose group represents welfare managers and other staff.
Local governments are racking up overtime pay coping with the new software, she said, and want the province to compensate them for the resulting budget hit.
"The actual system has to be more useable and user-friendly," Heineck said, adding the province is doing what it can with in-office "SWAT" support teams that are nonetheless stretched thin, but "you can't say they aren't trying."
"I believe that in the end this is going to be a better system than the one we had before," she said.
"But right now? The most important thing is to fix it so that people can get back to work and clients receive a minimal disruption of service."
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