“I’ve been on hold with the Ministry for over an hour!” If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. These days one of the most common complaints of TAPS’ advocates, volunteers and clients alike is how inaccessible the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation (MSDSI) has become. Whether by phone or in person, fortress MSDSI has increasingly become impenetrable. This situation is at best frustrating, at worst a threat to one’s financial security and personal rights. The following article sets out commonly experienced accessibility problems, as well as possible solutions.
Access by Phone
Typically accessing MSDSI starts with their 1-866-866-0800 toll-free number. New applicants, assistance recipients and advocates are all directed to this number if they need to speak with a worker. This in itself represents a significant barrier as it assumes everyone has access to a phone, which is not true of many living in poverty.
Currently callers to MSDSI are faced with two options: wait on hold for an indefinite length of time, or have their call immediately disconnected due to high call volumes. According to MSDSI representatives, there are limited spaces on the call queue. Once those spaces are occupied by people waiting on hold, no additional calls can get through.
Waiting on hold can be a costly and unrealistic option for those with “pay per minute” phone plans. It also ties up the caller’s phone line, including those of TAPS’ advocates waiting to get through. Moreover, it is not unusual for calls to be disconnected after being on hold for over an hour.
MSDSI advises that they are aware of the problem and are trying to address it. More workers have recently been hired to increase call centre capacity, and MSDSI may be adding a “call back” feature where callers have the option of requesting a return call from a worker, instead of waiting on hold. MSDSI’s suggestions for clients include the following:
- · Try calling at different times, including over the lunch hour, as volumes vary.
- · Go to an MSDSI office instead (although equally problematic).
Unfortunately, we at TAPS have yet to see any concrete improvement on the 1-866 line. As an organization we continue to engage in broader advocacy on this issue by raising it with representatives from MSDSI’s Community Relations and Service Quality department.
TAPS’ advocates also recommend that clients contact the Office of the Ombudsperson (1-800-567-3247; http://www.ombudsman.bc.ca/ ). The BC Ombudsperson receives and independently investigates complaints about the practices and services of public agencies, including MSDSI.
Another option is to take your complaint about service quality to the office of the Minister directly, by calling (250-356-7750) or sending an e-mail SDSI.firstname.lastname@example.org
Access in Person
For those without a phone or who must go into an MSDSI office to meet a worker, the waiting game continues. Unless clients have an appointment, they must wait to be seen in the order they arrive. The wait can stretch to hours and even days, depending on worker availability. If the wait extends over the lunch hour, clients are “kicked out” of the office to return at 1 o’clock.
Once inside the MSDSI office the accessibility challenges continue. Firstly, there is no central reception or system for “triaging” why people are in the office. A person with a complex issue may wait as long as someone needing to get a document.
Typically security guards are the first point of contact a person has at an MSDSI office. Arguably the mere presence and assumed need for security personnel is a barrier in and of itself. Some individuals feel very uncomfortable in the office; they feel as though they are treated with suspicion and hostility just for being poor. Some even report offensive behaviour on the part of the guards themselves.
Physical accessibility is a problem as well. For example, the office at Gateway Village, designated for people with disabilities, lacks sufficient seating. It is not uncommon to see people standing outside on the sidewalk waiting for a chair to become available. Waiting in such circumstances can be both physically and mentally overwhelming for many individuals.
As with complaints about phone accessibility, TAPS has approached MSDSI to propose solutions to long in-person wait times. One such suggestion was the introduction of a receptionist to review why clients are in the office. This person could expedite “quick issues” while triaging more complex situations to ensure people are not waiting needlessly.
Another solution is to avoid the office waiting game and instead fax information and requested documents to MSDSI directly. Information received by fax is reviewed and electronically attached to client files. TAPS advocates recommend keeping a copy of the transmission report showing the date and time that the fax was sent, should there be any issue down the line.
When TAPS advocates receive complaints about security guard behaviour, clients are directed to contact the Ministry of Justice. In BC, businesses and individual workers offering security services must hold a valid security licence. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for issuing such licenses. Compliance with the “Code of Conduct” is contained in legislation and is a condition of all licenses. This Code requires, in part, that while engaged in security work the licensee must:
- act with honesty and integrity;
- treat all persons equally, without discrimination based on race, ancestry, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, age or economic or social status;
- not use profane, abusive or insulting language or actions; and
- not use unnecessary force.
Complaints about violations of the Code can be made online (http://www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/securityindustry/) or by contacting the Ministry of Justice (1-855-587-0185).
Because MSDSI is a provincial entity offering services to the public, they are required to follow the BC Human Rights Code in the provision of those services. The obligations created by this Code include the “duty to accommodate” people with disabilities. “Accommodation” is an equality concept that seeks to create inclusive environments which respect differences. For example, where a person’s capabilities are restricted due to disability, a reasonable accommodation must be provided. If a person believes they are unable to access the ministry’s services because of their disability, they should make a request for accommodation directly to a worker or MSDSI supervisor. If the request is denied or if additional advocacy is needed, clients can contact a number of organizations, including the Law Centre (250-385-1221) or BC Human Rights Coalition (1-877-689-8474).
There are no winners in the waiting game, but hopefully the above suggestions offer some support and encouragement along the way.