As more than 100 organizations learn whether or not they’ve won contracts to deliver WorkBC employment services across British Columbia, some in the sector are beginning to raise alarm about a massive shift they fear is underway.
“Are community services in B.C. under attack?” wondered Janet Morris-Reade, the CEO of the Association of Service Providers for Employability and Career Training (ASPECT), in a Jan. 18 blog post.
The WorkBC program serves tens of thousands of clients throughout the province each year, helping people search for jobs, assess their skills and get training.
The organizations contracted by WorkBC to do the work employ thousands of staff, a significant number of whom have recently received lay-off notices.
WorkBC contracts are supported by $2.5 billion in funds committed by the federal government over six years. The program is administered by the province, which also puts tens of millions of its own money in.
During the past year, there has been a procurement process for new contracts to begin on April 1. While the government has not yet publicly announced the results, bidders are beginning to learn whether or not they were successful.
A late December news report identified Valemount Learning Centre as a small organization that will lose WorkBC funding.
“A very large percentage of our revenue comes from the WorkBC contract,” said executive director Riette Kenkel in the report. “Without it, we will have to lay off more than half of our staff.” The contract had grown to cover a wider region than the organization was equipped to service, she said.
The Trail Times reports that after 20 years, the Skills Centre will stop providing B.C. government employment programs in the city. Instead they’ll be run by the Kootenay Career Development Society, which had already been running employment services centres in Nelson and Castlegar.
In Prince George, according to the MyPGNow website, Kopar Administration Ltd. failed to win a contract to continue providing WorkBC services, and 25 jobs may be lost.
Losing senior leaders
By Jan. 25, Morris-Reade wrote that she’d spoken with 25 of the 98 members of her organization. “It is a sad time for many who work in the sector, and the announcement of contractors for WorkBC 2.0 (as one member referred to it) will likely not be a good news announcement unless we have detailed information on the financial framework,” she said.
In an interview, Morris-Reade said it appears a transition is underway in the sector. “All I can talk about until the announcements are made is just the feeling of what’s going on in the background of the service providers and the big shifts that are happening with the new contracts.”
Some jurisdictions are being consolidated, which will lead to a drop in the number of organizations holding contracts, she said. Previous contracts required organizations to be located in the communities where they were delivering services, but the most recent procurement has dropped that requirement.
“A lot of the contracts I’ve been hearing about are being virtually managed, which means the on-site community managers are not necessarily having a job anymore. That’s a bit challenging,” Morris-Reade said.
“As a sector we’re starting to lose some of our senior leaders within these organizations, and that’s a little bit frightening.” If the sector is losing experienced people now, while unemployment rates are low, it may be hard to rebuild it when the economy dips and the expertise is needed, she said.
Many of the organizations use the WorkBC funding as a base so that they can provide daycare, mental health or other services. Some are worried about how they’ll afford to stay open without the WorkBC money, Morris-Reade said, but added that the ingenuity of service providers can be astounding.
The uncertainty has been difficult. “The challenge is right now everything’s up in the air. There are lots of rumours floating around,” Morris-Reade said.
“Not knowing what’s going to happen and how this is all going to play out has definitely caused some insecurity in our sector. Not only for the prime contractors, but for the subcontractors who supply special supports to people with barriers.”
According to one account, many small service providers didn’t receive contracts while big, for-profit companies WCG Services and Maximus Canada — both of which are American-owned — together won eight of the 45 contracts available.
“The Community Based Service Provider pool in B.C. is being destroyed,” they said. “Contracts have been lost all over B.C. Storefronts will close and clients will be confused. It is indeed a sad day.”
A post on the website of Board Voice, an organization of volunteer community-based boards, said it doesn’t yet have the full provincial picture but is concerned about what it does know.
“At least 25 of the current contract holders either lost their bids or didn’t bid, almost all of them non-profits,” it said.
“That is a major change, with no public consultation or indication from government that such a dramatic change was required. Made-in-B.C. expertise in job-training that in some cases dates back 30 years will be lost.”
‘It will be okay’: minister
Shane Simpson, the minister of social development and poverty reduction, said that he’s limited in what he can say publicly while the ministry continues to communicate results to bidders.
While the government and his ministry set the broad direction for the program, Simpson stressed he was not involved at all in the actual procurement, which was handled through the Citizens’ Services ministry.
“I understand some people who are not successful will be disappointed, and I get that and I don’t diminish that,” he said. “And the people who are successful are excited about that. We’ve had more money going into the community sector than went in the last time. It will be okay.”
He acknowledged the government is making changes to the program, particularly responding to past evaluations that found there were incentives for contractors to concentrate services on the people who were most likely to find jobs rather than the ones who most needed help.
“Because of the nature of how contracts were paid, a lot of people who were more job ready tended to come through the service because they were looking for volume,” Simpson said.
But in a strong economy, the people who’ve tended to need the help were more likely to have disabilities or other complex issues and to need more support than the program was designed to provide, he said.
“The plan here is to shift the model. As one provider said to me, ‘We’re seeing less people, but the people we’re seeing have more complex issues and they need more time.’ It’s about revamping the model to ensure we allow for more time to be invested in people, so the outcomes are not just that people who are relatively job ready… get a job, but [also] people who need a little more help for a variety of reasons.”
The program will also include funding to provide more support for people after they find jobs to make sure they’re successful, he said.
Overall the program has grown, Simpson said, crediting the federal government for increasing its contribution. In some communities there will be an increase in services, he added.
As before, there will be a variety of providers, he said. “It’s quite a mix, and it’s like a lot of things: it’s a government service that’s being delivered by private providers, either in the non-profit or profit sector, and it’s a mixed bag as to who got what.”
They’ll also include some public institutions, which is something new for the program, he said. Including contractors and subcontractors, there are upwards of 120 groups involved in delivering the program, he added.
Noting that the previous government delayed opening bids on the contracts for two years, he said, “This is a complicated procurement. It’s big. It’s one of the most complex ones probably government does.”
Board Voice executive director Jody Paterson said that since 2011, the provincial government has divided the province into fewer and larger regions and reduced the number of contracts available.
While at one time there were 300 different organizations delivering services, it dropped to 73 in 2012 and to 45 in the most recent procurement process.
“There’s all these pretty boring technical questions around how you procure that can really change the result even when you don’t plan for it,” Paterson said.
“We believe the procurement process is having results that are perhaps not valuing the community where these services exist, not valuing the contribution of the communities, and not thinking about the right fit for the community.”
The resulting contracts are in many cases larger than a small community organization can handle. In some cases they require waiting for a year after work is done to receive payment.
That might work for a big business that can take on debt, but not for a small community group, she said. “Basically they start to exclude the community sector by way of the practicalities of it.”
It may not even be the result the government wants, Paterson added. “Even though nobody said, ‘Hey, let’s start to shift the sector to a different kind of provider, who perhaps is very large and doesn’t have any community connections’... That’s what starts to happen.”
Layoff notices commencing
Paterson said the shift happening in the sector is massive. In some regions community organizations won contracts, and she understands from the government that overall they’ll see an eight per cent funding increase. That’s positive, she said.
But many other organizations that had been doing the work for years lost contracts. “Many people are getting layoff notices right now.”
She knew of one contractor who was laying off 150 people and figured there would be thousands in that situation across the province.
The new contracts don’t include successor rights and people will lose any seniority, wage increases and benefits they’ve gained. “All of that is gone now. The wage will be whatever the wage is for a new person coming into the new organization.”
The change will also affect the many people who rely on community organizations, she said. “It isn’t just the workers. More than anything it’s the people who get services from community service organizations.”
Asked about people receiving layoff notices, Simpson said, “I’m not kind of ready to be talking about that until I’m ready to be talking about it all.”
Simpson said he expects the government will keep adjusting the program as it becomes clear what is and isn’t working well. If the economy was to weaken and the unemployment rate was to go up, that would require changes as well, he said. “If it goes up a couple per cent, it’s a different story.”
So far it is unclear that the current government has handled the program any differently than the one it replaced would have.
When The Tyee asked Simpson where he sees a difference, he paused before saying, “My focus here is on who is going to get service and how are they going to get service. That’s my primary focus.”
The program will be closely tied to the poverty plan that the government is going to release in coming weeks, he said. Creating opportunities for employment will be a significant part of the plan and WorkBC will have a role in that, he said.
Expect more detail with the Feb. 19 budget, he said. “The poverty plan will be coming out, and it will be closely aligned with the budget.”
Profit the ‘wrong’ motive
Morris-Reade said some ASPECT members “are feeling that the non-profit sector is being desecrated by lack of funding, like skinnier funding in the contract.” Some may have won contracts that are smaller than what they held previously or that have different requirements.
There will be a period of adjustment, Morris-Reade said. “Until you’ve lived the contracts, you really don’t know how it’s going to work. You can do all the modelling in the world, but until you deliver it you’re not really sure what’s going on.”
People will have a better idea three months into the new contract period, she said. “That will be when we sort of see whether or not the contracts are successfully supporting the work that’s being done.”
Local non-profits work hard, invest their revenues back into services and know their communities, Paterson said. “I don’t think people understand the value of the sector enough, at the government level or in the public, to know what they’re giving up when for-profit and large corporations start to take a bigger hold of social care services.”
Community non-profits do a wide variety of social services work, Paterson said. Besides job programs, they are involved in gang prevention work, settling immigrants, running pre-schools, providing mental health and addiction programs, housing, wellness and much more.
“Think about all those services ending up dealt with through for-profit companies,” she said, mentioning how privatized services have deteriorated in the United States and the United Kingdom.
“That is my fear. How would social care change if profit had to be the motive?... Some things are not meant to make a profit for shareholders. It’s the wrong motivation.”
Donna Wood is an adjunct professor in political science at the University of Victoria and the author of Federalism in Action: The Devolution of Canada’s Public Employment Service 1995-2015, which compares how different provinces have managed employment services.
B.C. stands out in Canada as having both the most centralized decision-making and the highest level of outsourcing, Wood said, something she attributes to past decisions B.C. made about how to manage its employment programs.
While Newfoundland and Labrador brought employment programs in-house to be delivered by government staff, B.C. is at the other end of the spectrum, she said. “B.C. is completely outsourced.”
Over time that’s led to a shrinking number of contracts with large, powerful companies playing a growing role, similar to the pattern in the U.K. and Australia after they pioneered the privatization of employment services.
Something is sacrificed when services go that route, Wood said.
“One would think it would be important for organizations working at the local level that are well connected with employers [and] post-secondary institutions, that these would be the best people to organize those services as opposed to multi-national corporations that are just coming in.”