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Why the Disability Earnings Cap Is Holding People Back

Workers with disabilities aren’t earning a living wage in BC. What’s at stake, and how to turn it around.

Helaine Boyd 4 Jul 2024The Tyee

Helaine Boyd is the executive director of Disability Alliance BC.

One in four people in B.C. lives with a disability. Most people accessing social assistance in B.C. also receive disability assistance.

I’m the executive director of Disability Alliance BC, a provincial non-profit that supports people with all types of disabilities to live with dignity and independence, and as full and equal participants in the community. Our mandate as an organization is now more timely than ever. People with disabilities face higher poverty rates and worse housing outcomes and incur higher and additional expenses for basic needs of daily living than non-disabled people.

I often hear from clients on disability assistance who feel that they have become trapped within a cycle of poverty due to the punitive restrictions put in place by the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.

A stark example of this is the annual earnings exemption limit. This limit means that a person receiving disability assistance can make only up to $16,200 from employment income before their person with disabilities, or PWD, payments are cut off for the rest of the year.

A single person on disability assistance receives $1,483.50 in PWD income per month. If they can also work enough to reach the maximum earnings limit without exceeding it, then their total monthly net income would be, on average, $2,833.50.

This means that even if they’re working as much as they can, people on disability assistance are generally still making far less than other living-wage employees, despite having higher costs of living due to disability-related costs.

As an employer, I feel disgusted by the fact that I am complicit in working within the constraints of an ableist system. It’s a system that forces disabled employees to make choices about their work based on how much a person on disability assistance is allowed to earn as employment income before they are rendered ineligible for PWD income — income that is a lifeline as much as it is constraining, and not enough.

It is sickening that I need to have these conversations with staff regarding how many hours they can work solely based on the earnings limit put in place by the ministry.

What I want, and can’t have, is a discussion with my staff on how many hours they can work based on their own understanding of what they are able to do.

The earnings limit for people on PWD income makes a mockery of living-wage employers like us and other organizations that work to uphold the dignity and self-determination of people with disabilities.

The current rules don’t reflect reality

What’s missing — both from the general public’s understanding of the lives of people with disabilities, and from the ministry, if we are to interpret its policy making as a reflection of its understanding of disabled life — is that people with disabilities are contending with realities that require more flexibility than what they’re often given.

Some people with disabilities have moments of time in which they can work more hours. And there are other times when they may need to take some time off due to the nature of their disability.

It is precisely this factor of the unknown that prevents people on disability assistance from choosing full-time employment, or even part-time employment, over their disability assistance.

As a living-wage employer, the difficulty of the discussions we have with our staff is magnified by the fact that because the cost of living keeps rising, the living wage keeps increasing.

If I want to lift my staff’s wages to keep pace with the living wage, then I may have to cut their hours so they don’t reach the earnings limit set by the ministry.

It is a form of discrimination and ableism that people receiving disability assistance won’t be able to access the benefits of a living wage or be promoted into higher positions.

This can keep disabled workers trapped in a cycle of poverty.

‘Disability assistance is not enough to survive’

My colleague Steve Wright shares his experience as a person who was receiving disability assistance for many years:

I was on disability assistance from January 2008 until late 2023. My path to receiving, then leaving behind PWD [income] and thus financial support was a long one.

While on disability assistance, I felt othered. At times, I experienced the crushing powerlessness of my livelihood being beholden to a faceless governmental ministry.

Our government knows us and our existence; they have our statistics, control our support at all levels, and they are the ones who adjudicate on whether we are severely disabled enough to receive PWD income and, thus, control our survival in society.

The ministry restricts and regulates in this manner with the full knowledge that we have little recourse.

But disability assistance is not enough to survive in this economy. And oftentimes people on disability assistance are pushed into precarious situations to eke out a livelihood.

We work to earn money to pay for what PWD doesn’t. Not extras, just absolute necessities. We find our own extra income to take us out of abject poverty.

When my earnings limit was reached in 2023 and my disability assistance was stopped, I kept working because I was able to at that time.

But my ability to work is never guaranteed because I am severely mentally ill.

Disabilities are not often set in stone. They are erratic beasts that can alter our existence at any time and which can hinder our ability to work.

If that happens after we reach the earnings limit, most of us are bereft of options. We are abandoned and left without support by the very government that declared us in need of sustained financial support to begin with.

So, we must choose between working beyond our abilities and possibly harming ourselves; ceasing work before reaching the earnings limit; or being left without any income at all. The earnings limit is a rule that is targeted squarely at a population known to be vulnerable and which denies us basic dignity.

The only way this can change without a meaningful and substantial increase of the disability assistance rate to the equivalent of a full-time living wage is to remove the earnings limit for people on disability assistance.

Impossible decisions that shouldn’t have to be

Time and time again, Disability Alliance BC has advocated to increase assistance rates, including calling upon the government to index rates to inflation so that people on disability assistance have some level of confidence in financial planning for their future.

We have heard from clients who continue to make impossible decisions between essentials like food, medication, rent and utilities.

The rise in the cost of living over the past few years has made things even harder.

Even though the ministry has raised PWD income in small increments over the past few years, rates have not kept pace with inflation and thus have been inadequate in addressing deep poverty in our province.

This means that people on disability assistance have to make do with less year over year, while knowing they will lose their PWD income if they earn more than the earnings limit.

Beyond our client base, the majority of my organization’s staff are people with disabilities.

To ensure we do not negatively impact their access to disability assistance, we often work with the employee to determine how much they can feasibly work while staying on PWD income, or develop a plan for them to transition to relying solely on their employment income from Disability Alliance BC.

We have tried to make our employment environment more inclusive by offering more sick days (18 sick days per year), robust extended health benefits and a health spending account for other health-related expenses.

But these methods are only part of employers' moral responsibility to their employees.

As a living-wage employer, we have also committed to the central principle that we want our employees to earn enough to have a decent livelihood.

The current earnings limit flies in the face of this central principle.

Removing this limit will allow people with disabilities the ability to work to meet their livelihood needs and live on their own terms, with dignity and respect.

This is why I’ve joined 50 other non-profit leaders, advocates and community partners in the anti-poverty and disability rights sectors in calling for Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Sheila Malcolmson to abolish the earnings limit.

As the ministry is due to release a new poverty reduction strategy this summer, now is the time to make this change and ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same working rights and quality of life as their peers.  [Tyee]

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