“I feel like Norma Rae”

Authority Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
Details

Our Office received complaints from two separate individuals about the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, both concerned about the amount of money being deducted from their Employment Insurance (EI) benefits, and sent to the Ministry as repayment for hardship assistance they had received in the previous months. Both individuals explained that while awaiting approval of their EI applications, and in order to make ends meet, they had contacted the ministry and been approved for repayable hardship assistance. As part of the application process, the ministry had required they sign an Assignment of Benefits (AOB) form authorizing the federal government to make deductions to their EI benefits and “assign” the money to the ministry as repayment. Both individuals told our Office they agreed to the assignment, but were unprepared for the financial impacts of the repayment once they started receiving reduced EI benefits.

Both individuals were concerned the ministry had made a mistake calculating the repayment amount, because the deductions had left them without enough money to afford basics like rent and food. Both individuals told us that when they tried resolving the issue by contacting the ministry directly, they were advised the calculations were correct, and that the ministry had no ability to reduce the repayment deductions, even if a person is experiencing financial difficulty as a result. The individuals remained concerned a mistake had been made on their file, and did not know where to turn when they contacted our Office. As part of our investigation, we reviewed the ministry’s publicly available information about hardship assistance while awaiting EI and the assignment of benefits repayment process. In both cases, we also contacted the ministry and obtained records associated with the individuals’ requests, including copies of the AOB forms they had signed as part of their application for hardship assistance.

Our reviews indicated that the AOB forms provided by the ministry to the individuals had identified both the amount of repayable assistance being issued, as well as the minimum amount of EI the individuals would receive while their benefits were on assigned to the ministry, also known as the Minimum Weekly Living Allowance. In both cases, it appeared the process followed by the ministry for the assignment of benefits was in accordance with the legislation and policy, and the calculations were correct. 

However, given the issues identified by the complainants about the financial impact of the repayments process, and based on our review of the ministry’s existing public information about this type of repayable hardship assistance, we had questions about whether individuals were receiving adequate information to fully understand the repayment process and how their further EI benefits would be impacted when they agreed to the terms of the AOB. We consulted with the ministry about this issue.

The ministry acknowledged the repayment process is complicated and that improvements to their existing communications and public information were needed to clarify how the assignment affects a person’s EI benefits and eligibility for future assistance. Through our consultations with the ministry, it committed to revising its public information about hardship assistance while awaiting EI, and also identified steps it would be taking to improve staff communications about the AOB to ensure applicants received information they needed in order to understand the implications of signing an AOB before doing so. When we followed-up with one of the individuals and explained the commitments made by the ministry to improve its communications, they were pleased to hear changes would be made and expressed how they felt they had made a difference for others in contacting our Office, or, as one said, “I feel like Norma Rae!” 

Category Income and Benefits
Type Case Summary
Fiscal Year 2017