Sarnia man says workshop’s meager pay violates his human rights

Kris McCormick, 38, receives $11 an hour working at Pro Oil Change, and 46 cents an hour in the woodworking department at Wawanosh Enterprises. He is currently awaiting a hearing before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson 

A Sarnia man with an intellectual disability who is paid 46 cents an hour to attend the sheltered workshop at Wawanosh Enterprises says his earnings are discriminatory and violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Kris McCormick, 38, has taken his complaint to the Human Rights Legal Support Centre and, after mediation failed last month, is waiting for a hearing before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

His complaint is only the second of its kind in Ontario.

“I am really surprised no one else has formally complained,” McCormick told The Journal. “ I want a decent wage for me and everyone else.”

His mother, Erla McCormick, said she twice asked Wawanosh Enterprises to increase her son’s wages with no results.

“It’s not about the money. It’s about the principle,” she said.  “I just want him to feel like a man and feel good about himself.”

McCormick has done woodworking for more than 10 years at the sheltered workshop, which is operated by Community Living Sarnia-Lambton. He receives 46 cents an hour, or $29.34 every two weeks, after Employment Insurance deductions, if he attends five days a week.

With the help of a Community Living coach he was recently hired at Pro Oil Change on Cathcart Boulevard, where he holds an advertising sign out front three days a week. For that, he is paid minimum wage of $11 an hour.

Finding a minimum wage job is extremely challenging for people with disabilities, Erla McCormick said.

“It’s taken years to find something and I can see he feels so much better about himself now.”

He continues to work twice a week at Wawanosh Enterprises, making crates, surveyor stakes and cremation boxes for sale. It’s work he enjoys and he has friends there.

Mindy Noble, a lawyer with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, says McCormick is seeking $25,000 in compensation for harm done to his dignity, as well as minimum wage going forward at Wawanosh for himself and his co-workers.

In the application, McCormick acknowledged there are times he takes recreational breaks and doesn’t produce product at Wawanosh. He said he doesn’t expect minimum wage when he’s not being productive.

John Hagens, executive director of Community Living Sarnia-Lambton, said the position of the agency is that McCormick is not an employee of the sheltered workshop and does not earn a wage. Therefore, there is no violation of the Human Rights Code, he said.

“The 46 cents is an honorarium to encourage attendance,” said Hagens. “We consider ourselves a day support program and he is a service recipient. It is not an employer-employee relationship.

“People come here for friendship. They come out of choice and they are free to leave whenever they like,” Hagens said. “No one is ever let go.”

He is disappointed McCormick’s complaint went public, he said.

“The fact that Kris keeps coming … he’s always welcome here. We just want everyone to understand we are a service provider. We have nothing to apologize for, and we’re proud of what we do.”

The tribunal is expected to hold the hearing early in 2016.  The case comes at a time questions are being raised across Canada and the U.S. about wages for people with disabilities.

Last year, the tribunal ruled in favour a 45-year-old St. Catharines woman with an intellectual disability who was paid $1.25 as a labourer at a packaging company for 10 years.

In Garrie vs. Janus Joan, Terri-Lynn Garrie was awarded $142,124 in lost wages, $19,613 in lost income for discriminatory termination, and $25,000 in compensation for “injury to her dignity, feelings and self respect.”

The Human Rights Legal Support Centre expected the groundbreaking ruling to trigger widespread change, but nothing has happened, the centre’s Jennifer Ramsay said.

The company folded and Garrie has been paid nothing, nor has change occurred elsewhere.

“The decision made it very clear it’s illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities,” said Ramsay. “It’s distressing. It’s demeaning and it has to stop.”