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Struggling single parents raise concerns at Leg

Daily Leg. Update - SIS program, SaskPower rate review, vote on 10-day paid sick leave highlight the day.
Legislature SIS concerns
Frank Francoeur, a single parent, voices concerns at the legislature on the SIS program, joined by Opposition critic Meara Conway and another single parent, Kelly Anderson.

REGINA — The Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, as well as SaskPower’s rate review and proposed eight per cent rate hike request, were the main focus at the legislature Thursday morning.

Struggles with SIS program highlighted 

The issues of a couple of individuals in making ends meet under the program was highlighted in Question Period by Critic for Social Services Meara Conway. She noted that joining them in the gallery were Kelly Anderson and Frank Francoeur. She noted both were single parents, each of whom had their incomes decrease transferring to the SIS program, due to having to pay utilities out of benefits rather than through direct payment.

“His income went up on paper, but his actual income went down because he now pays his utilities out of pocket. He’s now expected to live on less than a third of what he was making on the SAP [Saskatchewan Assistance] program,” Conway said during Question Period.  

Francoeur, a single parent with two kids, was evicted last week. Conway said he had been paying his rent on time, but couldn’t keep up with the additional utility payments.

“He tried desperately to catch up, but this government refused to work with him,” said Conway. 

In her responses during Question Period, Minister of Finance Donna Harpauer pledged to arrange to have someone meet the individual after Question Period and answer his questions.

“Except this isn’t one individual, this is systemic,” said Conway.

Conway further claimed correspondence from her on his behalf at the end of March went unanswered from the Minister of Social Services Lori Carr. 

She also pointed out Kelly Anderson also saw her income cut when she transitioned to the SIS program, and was worried her power would be cut off.

Harpauer responded they did increase the funding for SIS in the budget, however they could have someone meet Anderson after Question Period.

“These are not special circumstances … people are winding up on the streets,” Conway noted.

In speaking to reporters after Question Period, Francoeur noted he is now in charge of paying for utilities whereas before he wasn't.

He admitted since being served with eviction, he tried to contact Social Services on the next steps and “it’s radio silence. Nobody’s coming back to me with the next steps.”

He expressed frustration that nothing was being done to work things out. “It’s just a matter of phone calls,” he said.

Anderson told reporters she was not in an eviction situation like Francoeur, but was struggling with keeping up with utility bills. 

“If social assistance didn’t switch me from SAP to SIS, my utilities would be paid,” Anderson said. “It’s been nothing but a downward battle.” 

She believed it was not an isolated situation but a broader issue.

“I think it’s a much broader situation than that. They need to get off their high horse and do something for the lower income community,” Anderson said of the government. “There’s many of us out there who can’t pay our power, our utilities, our water. At least on SAP we could make our ends meet.”

In speaking to reporters, Minister Harpauer said the “nature of the program, quite frankly, is that clients have challenges. It’s an income assistance program of last resort, and all sources of income are taken into account when doing the calculations.”

But she “couldn’t speak to individual circumstances,” and that was why officials would be meeting with them to help them through their questions, she told reporters.

SaskPower rate review concerns raised 

The possibility of a SaskPower rate hike was also a hot topic in Question Period Thursday.

Minister responsible for SaskPower Don Morgan fielded several questions from Opposition critic Aleana Young on SaskPower’s rate review, in which they are considering an application for an eight per cent rate hike.

Young pointed to inflation pressures on businesses and accused the government of being “ignorant” of the impact that an eight per cent power hike would have “on their ability to have and create jobs.”

“People, businesses cannot take another power hike and it seems this government just doesn’t care.”

Morgan responded there was an application before the rate review panel and no decision has been made by cabinet. 

In speaking to reporters later, Morgan was asked about businesses now coming forward expressing concerns about the rate hike request.

“We’ll want to work with the businesses of the province, their viability their ability to maintain payroll, maintain their expenses, so naturally we have to look at affordability for them as well as individuals in our province.”

He told reporters the process is to let the rate review panel do their work, and they will make a final determination in which the government can accept it or reject it.

Should they reject it, that would result in a significant deficit for SaskPower, Morgan said, so “we have to work at whatever we need to do to make sure SaskPower is able to remain viable, and look after their debt-equity ration, so we’ll watch it carefully.”

Opposition motion on 10-day sick leave loses

It was not much of a surprise that the Saskatchewan Party majority was able to easily defeat an NDP-supported motion calling for 10 days of paid sick leave.

Bill No. 606, The Saskatchewan Employment (Paid Sick Days) Amendment Act, 2021 had been moved by Saskatoon University MLA Jennifer Bowes, but it lost on second reading by a 39-10 vote. 

In closing debate in the legislature Thursday, Bowes noted the choice faced by many Saskatchewan workers: do they stay home, or "do they force themselves to go into work because they work for an employer who does not offer paid sick leave and because they simply can’t afford to stay home and lose a day’s pay?"

"We know this is the unacceptable reality for far too many Saskatchewan workers," Bowes said. "It is a reality that leaves many working people struggling just to stay afloat, never mind to thrive. It’s a reality where workers are unfairly forced to make the impossible choice between their financial survival, their health and the health of those around them."

In speaking to reporters before the vote, Morgan, who is the province's minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety, pointed to other government initiatives to help workers.

Morgan said the government "value the work our employees do" and pointed to changes coming to the minimum wage to increase it to $13, $14 and $15. 

"We want to make sure there aren't too many other things creating an additional burden for employers as we come out of the pandemic," Morgan said.

Morgan also cited federal benefits in place as well as worker's compensation and employment insurance. He urged people to look at the other options that are there; Morgan also pointed to provisions in legislation to hold people's jobs for them, and said that would continue.