For 19 years, Annie Ray worked at a Fredericton catering company. Every day — from 8 a.m to 5:30 p.m — she washed dishes and chopped vegetables. She made $2 an hour.
Ray is 41 years old and has Down syndrome. When she graduated from high school 20 years ago, she entered the provincial Adult Developmental Activities, Programs and Training program, known as ADAPT.
The program is supposed to provide employees with intellectual disabilities a chance to learn how to do the job, and if needed, provide a support worker. The agencies delivering the program find work placements for their clients and they, not the employer, provide the stipend.
“If it’s established that you cannot learn to do your job up to a level where you can get minimum wage, then they just can pay you a stipend, whatever they want basically,” said Linda Hood, Annie’s mother. “And that’s where she’s been stuck all these years.
“She was very well capable of doing the work but her wage never improved.”
Ray said working for so little didn’t make her feel good.
“I was on a stipend,” she said.
Change affects 400 people
The province is now changing that program, which means Ray is about to be able to work for minimum wage for the first time in her life.
And she isn’t the only one. About 400 people across New Brunswick earn stipends through ADAPT programs, and all are to be moved toward earning minimum wage.
The change concerns Edwina Corey of Edwina’s Catering in Fredericton, where Ray worked for 19 years.
She has concerns about what the change will mean for the ability of small businesses like hers to bring in employees like Ray.
Corey said she loved having Ray in the kitchen, but it didn’t come without some frustrations.
“She was like one of my kids.”
Ray was very smart and regimented in her duties, but Corey said, she would not have considered hiring her at minimum wage.
Cash from employer every week
“We never really thought of it as a paying job.”
Corey never asked about how much Ray got as a stipend but said she would also give her cash each week, about $80.
She worried that anything but a cash transaction would affect Ray’s social assistance.
“I only knew that if I gave her money in cheque form, at least to my understanding, that she would lose some of her money that she got on the other end,” she said.
Corey worries the changes to focus on minimum wage employment will mean more people with disabilities will not be brought into the workforce.
“There’d be very few businesses that could take on that expense of having somebody who, you know, because there’s, there is a lot of challenges.”
The challenge of having employers now hire people with disabilities on minimum wage or better, rather than bringing them in through ADAPT, which paid the stipends, is not lost on Guna Kulasegaram.
Kulasegaram is the executive director of Jobs Unlimited, the ADAPT agency in Fredericton.
Employers, he said, “have to be receptive to the idea that all individuals regardless of their abilities are entitled to minimum wage.”
He said families of people with disabilities are concerned about what the shift to minimum wage will mean for their eligibility for social assistance.
“This is the nightmare of all the families that I deal with,” he said.
“They’re very concerned about the future in terms of the stability of finances and their income.”
Linda Hood said the change is a welcome one for her family.
Needs the money
Ray left the catering business two years ago because she was tired of the commute to Fredericton from her mother’s home in Stanley. She also decided she wanted to start living on her own.
“I like being on my own, [it’s] more private,” Ray said.
Ray was able to find an apartment in her hometown, but until a few months ago, most of her social assistance income was going to rent, leaving her with about $60 a month to live on.
Ray found a new position through ADAPT at the drugstore in Stanley, but that also paid a stipend, of $1.25 an hour.
“Most of her groceries came from the food bank, and that doesn’t make you proud,” Hood said.
Hood helped support her daughter financially, but after a while had difficulty herself. That’s when the New Brunswick Association for Community Living stepped in and helped Ray get a rent subsidy.
Even with the rent subsidy, money was tight, so Ray is excited about the prospect of no longer working for a stipend.
“I’ll be working for a real job with real minimum wage,” she said.
The money will give Ray more financial security, as well as allow her to pay for extra things, like the summer camp she attends for adults with disabilities.
“It’s going to make a big difference,” Hood said.
Hood said Ray won’t be working full-time hours once she starts earning minimum wage, which means she won’t be earning over $500 a month from that job. That is the maximum amount people on social assistance are allowed to make before their cheque is affected.
Time to change
The shift to minimum wage has come about because of a United Nations convention, now more than a decade old. The impact eventually trickled down from a global level to a local one.
In the 1980s, when programs like ADAPT were formed, the focus was not on equal pay, but on integrating people with disabilities into their communities.
“It was seen not to be an employer-employee relationship,” said Ken Pike, the director of social policy for the New Brunswick Association for Community Living, a non-profit that provides support to people with disabilities.
Pike said based on the definitions from the Employment Standards Act to be considered an employee, you must receive wages from your employer.
Pike said the stipend practice predates the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by Canada in 2010, and outlines that people with disabilities have a right to work on an equal basis with others.
“It’s probably not a good thing that in 2019 this is a practice that’s going on to some degree.”
Saint John labour lawyer Kelly VanBuskirk said the challenge is in the definition of employment and roles that aren’t clear.
“I think we can all imagine circumstances where an individual with particular disabilities may derive some social and even medical benefit from having some engagement in society generally through some kind of work, whether it’s volunteer work or otherwise,” VanBuskirk said.
Some individuals might choose to work in a volunteer capacity for a stipend, he said.
“That would be different from employment,” he said. “But if they are working in a situation that meets all the criteria of employment, then the only reason they would not be paid like a normal employee is arguably based on discrimination under the Human Rights Act.”
In May, the New Brunswick Association for Community Living completed a five-year pilot project with the Department of Social Development and 12 ADAPT agencies to change the way they deliver services to an employment-first model.
The department is reviewing and evaluating the project.
The new program “recognizes that everyone has skills and abilities they can contribute to the workplace and to their community,” the Department of Social Development, which subsidizes the ADAPT agencies, said in an email to CBC News.
“It’s about finding and respecting individual goals and aspirations, regardless of whether or not employment is identified as a goal,” said Abigail McCarthy, communications officer with the department.
Hood hopes the changes will help her daughter and more people with disabilities get out of a rut.
“They are trying to change that program and people with disabilities like Annie, who is very high-functioning, are quite capable of learning with a little bit of extra help,” Hood said.
Ray hasn’t been inclined to wait around for the changes. She has started a small business selling dog treats.
Ray loves dogs, and said owning her own small business “Annie’s Healthy Dog Treats” has boosted her confidence and independence.
“Being an entrepreneur is really fun,” Ray said.
She makes the treats herself and sells them through social media and at local businesses in Stanley and Fredericton. She has shipped them as far as Newfoundland.
Hood said owning her own business has instilled a sense of pride in her daughter.
“She walks with a proud walk.”