A Sarnia woman who objects to her intellectually challenged son earning 46 cents an hour at Community Living’s Wawanosh workshop is distressed the government intends to shut down the facility.
“What Wawanosh does is very important to the clients and their parents,” said Erla McCormick. “I never wanted sheltered workshops to be shut down.”
Her son, Kris McCormick, 38, has done woodworking at Wawanosh for 10 years. He says the low pay he earns is discriminatory and violates the Ontario Human Rights Code.
His complaint is scheduled to be heard in Sarnia by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in March.
But a senior official with Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services recently told The Toronto Star that provincially-funded workshops will be eliminated over the next five years.
“It’s not clear what is going to happen and Kris is worried they are just going to close Wawanosh,” his mom said.
“The whole time, all we’ve been saying is the clients should have an honest wage. Other than that, leave it alone. If they close the shelter and someone’s job doesn’t work out, what happens then? They won’t have anything to fall back on,” McCormick said.
John Hagens, executive director of Community Living Sarnia-Lambton, said he has received nothing official from the government that would impact Wawanosh Enterprises.
“Our policy direction seems to be coming from the Toronto Star,” said Hagens. “I don’t know anything more.”
Sheltered workshops across North America have increasingly come under fire for segregating people with intellectual disabilities and requiring them to work for little pay. Some jurisdictions have announced they intend to phase them out.
But Hagens said the criticism is unfair for Wawanosh.
“Ours is more of a day program that provides socialization and gives families relief,” he said. “It’s not an alternative employment program.”
Currently, 76 clients attend the workshop regularly, including McCormick.
Hagens said the median age is 50 years and about 28 of his clients require 24/7 support.
“Are they going to become competitively employable? I don’t think so,” he said. “A lot of people think our clients are all 20 and 30 years old and ready to work. That is not the case.”
Over at Goodwill Essex/Kent/Lambton, a sheltered workshop operates with 27 clients. CEO Kevin Smith said the government plan to introduce clients to other workplaces and activities is a good idea.
“We’ve been moving in this direction for a long time already because we are trying to give them a better quality of life,” said Smith.
He said he’s confident Ontario “wants to do this right” and spend several years transforming the program.
“One individual said to me that they are very optimistic about where this is heading, because they are capable of doing so much more with the right supports in place,” Smith said.