12/17/2014 10:39 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST

OPSEU taking government to court over social assistance computer glitch

TORONTO - A "flawed" computer program has "introduced chaos" into the system responsible for social assistance payments and is harming some of Ontario's most vulnerable residents, a public servants' union is alleging as it takes its complaints to court.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents caseworkers responsible for administering the payments, has filed an application with Ontario Superior Court asking for an injunction to stop use of the Social Assistance Management System (SAMS) until it can provide "reliable, timely and accurate benefits."

The new, $240-million system erroneously queued up $20 million in welfare and disability support overpayments earlier this month. OPSEU and the opposition parties say others who depend on social assistance got far less than normal or didn't get any payment at all.

The problem isn't with workers, but with the computer system, which OPSEU says the government implemented despite warnings it would not work properly.

"From day one OPSEU members reported serious concerns with SAMS," OPSEU president Warren "Smokey" Thomas said, adding that some recipients failed to receive supports such as health benefits, drug and dental cards, medical transportation and special diet allowances.

"The bottom line is that SAMS has introduced chaos into the (disability support and welfare) programs. Recipients of social assistance are losing trust in a critical public service. Caseworkers working in both programs are doing their best to try and minimize the impacts, but in spite of their best efforts the number of program flaws grows by the day."

OPSEU lawyer Kate Hughes said they are seeking the first available date to get the application heard on an interim basis.

"We think the evidence will be that this is not a matter of normal glitches or normal problems of rollout, but the system is fundamentally flawed," she said. "It is riddled with problems and it's not going to go away. Band-Aid fixes are unfortunately not going to work in this case."

Caseworkers say they are worried Dec. 22 — the day the next payments are due — will be a "disaster," Hughes said.

Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek said in a statement that more staff resources have been made available to help local offices "work through their unique challenges." December's payments are on schedule, she said.

"Additional oversight and validation steps have been taken, including early testing and review of the pay-run data to ensure payments remain on track," she wrote in the statement.

New Democrat Cheri DiNovo called the system "appalling."

"It's awful that for the most vulnerable populations...(they) are having to fear they're not going to get their cheques the week before Christmas. I mean, I don't know a better rendition of the grinch than the SAMS system."

Progressive Conservative Bill Walker said the Tories have asked for a full review of the program.

"It's still shocking that minister Jaczek and the Liberal government continue to refer the problems with SAMS as a minor glitch," he said in a statement.