Victoria – BC Ombudsperson, Jay Chalke, released his office’s 2020/21 Annual Report today highlighting more than 600 complaints received by his office about changes to public services arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The complaints that came to us this past year show the wide range of impacts the pandemic has had on British Columbians when receiving public services,” said Chalke. “While oversight offices like the Ombudsperson are important all of the time, they are particularly vital when government services rapidly change as they did during the pandemic.”
The office received more than 7,700 complaints and enquiries last year about a wide range of public sector organizations, 650 complaints were related to COVID-19. Common COVID-related complaints included concerns about long-term care, the adequacy of pandemic-related precautions in correctional centres and complaints related to pandemic benefits such as the BC Recovery Benefit and the Temporary Pandemic Pay Benefit. Overall, the most complained about public entities were ICBC, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.
“What’s interesting this year, is that we see a shift in the public bodies we received complaints about,” said Chalke noting that complaints about the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction dropped by almost 50% compared to last year. “It appears that the additional government supports offered by that ministry such as the COVID-19 supplement and the suspension of various benefit criteria, meant that people had less of a need to complain to us about the services provided by that ministry. Conversely, in other aspects of public administration we saw increased complaints, such as denials of visits in long term care.”
Notable outcomes of Ombudsperson investigations from 2020/21 related to the pandemic include:
- A wife’s application for long-term care essential visitor status was expedited and ultimately granted so she could support and care for her husband.
- A health authority reversed a policy established early in the pandemic that prevented in-person visits of lawyers with patients involuntarily detained under the Mental Health Act.
- A man whose business launch was interrupted due to COVID-19 restrictions was refunded a licencing fee by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
The Ombudsperson also investigated a number of matters not related to the pandemic. Notable outcomes of such investigations from 2020/21 include:
- A seriously injured worker who had slipped through the cracks at WCB was awarded $52,000 in retroactive payments for benefits he was unaware he qualified for.
- A violence alert placed arbitrarily on a patient’s medical record was removed and a letter of apology was sent to the patient who felt discriminated against by hospital staff.
- Following a complaint from a concerned parent, guidance documents were developed by a school district to inform school staff of the requirements before medically excluding or suspending a student.
The report also highlights the office’s first full year carrying out its new role under the Public Interest Disclosure Act. The office received 118 enquiries and reports relating to serious wrongdoing in the workplace from current and former employees of the BC public service over the past fiscal year – ten investigations were conducted, seven continue into 2021/22 and three investigations were either completed or ended because further investigation was not necessary because the matter had already been adequately addressed by another agency.
“It’s encouraging that current and former BC public service employees had the confidence to contact our office to ask questions, seek advice and to make a report of wrongdoing or reprisal,” said Chalke. “The law is still quite new and this report tells us that many public servants are aware of the Public Interest Disclosure Act and are making use of the new law.”
The Public Interest Disclosure Act came into force December 1, 2019. The law provides current and former provincial government employees an avenue to report concerns about wrongdoing at their workplace. Those who come forward are legally protected from reprisal.