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Job seekers with disabilities hopeful new government program will open doors

Employers can apply for a grant that will cover 37.5 per cent of a new hire's salary up to $37,500 if that employee lives with a disability.
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Erik King has been looking for a job since he was laid off when COVID-19 hit last year. His mother, Wendy King, isn’t sure the Jobs Now program goes far enough to encourage employers to hire those with disabilities.

St. Albert - Erik King has handed out about a dozen resumes since being laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, but he has yet to hear back from any potential employers.

“(We’ve) just been asking around and putting out feelers and just seeing what would be available for Erik. But (there’s) lots of competition for employment right now,” said Wendy King, Erik’s mother.

The 23-year-old St. Albert resident lives with Down syndrome. As such, his employment options are limited.

“Erik's choices are not what everyone else's choices are for employment. And so, if he thinks that there's a job that he would do well with, then we will apply, but there's going to be a lot of jobs that just wouldn't fit his strengths,” said Wendy.

With the new Jobs Now program announced May 19, the province is hoping to nudge employers to hire more people like Erik.

Under the program, employers can apply for a grant that covers a percentage of an employee’s wage for up to 52 weeks.

If the employee lives with a disability, the program will cover 37.5 per cent of their salary up to $37,500.

Rajan Sawhney, Minister of Community and Social Services, said the program is monumental.

“There's never been anything like it before in Alberta, where we are actually incentivizing employers to hire persons with disabilities,” said Sawhney in an interview.

Sawhney said one of the key concerns she has heard about since she was sworn in as minister, is the lack of employment opportunities for people who live with disabilities.

“The reality is that the unemployment rate is high right now for all Albertans, but for people with disabilities, this is their reality. That is the way it's always been,” she said.

Sawhney said they decided to roll out the program now because vaccination rates are going up and infections are going down.

“We are getting closer and closer to opening up society and the economy. And when that happens, employers are going to be wanting to hire people again. And we want to make sure that they are aware that people with disabilities are a great demographic, for lack of a better word, to tap into,” she said.

The NDP Critic for Community and Social Services, Marie Renaud, has concerns about the program, the first of which is that there is no specific amount of money earmarked for hiring people with disabilities out of the $370 million promised through Jobs Now.

“That's a limited pot of money,” said Renaud.

She is also concerned about the lack of definition around the term disability.

“If you're going to talk about workers with disabilities, you have to define disability, and I didn't see that information,” Renaud said.

Sawhney said they did not define disability because it will be self-declared, and the government is relying on the honour system with employers. In an email, Sawhney also said self-declared disability is important to remove any barriers or unnecessary red tape for both employers and employees. 

Wendy said the program is interesting, but she also has concerns.

Businesses are still struggling from the pandemic, particularly small businesses, and they would still have to have the ability to pay more than 60 per cent of the employee’s wage. It is the small businesses that have been more open to hiring Erik. 

“That's been our experience, people that have got to know Erik, on a personal level, and they can see what he offers,” she said.

She also doesn’t think 37.5 per cent is a high enough incentive. She would like to see that number increased.

“People with disabilities are underemployed. In a great market, they're underemployed. And so that little percentage of an increase I don't think is enough. I think that they should be really considering covering a much larger per cent. I would think if it was 60 per cent covered (by the government) and 40 per cent by the employer, you'd absolutely see an uptake,” she said.

Wendy said it might open the door for people to consider hiring somebody with a disability, but they will have to see how it actually rolls out.

In the meantime, the Kings have been brainstorming ideal job ideas.

Erik thinks it would be awesome if he could find employment at the new fire hall near his house when it is finished being built and he has a list of tasks he could complete.

“Cleaning. Cooking. Baking,” Erik said.

“We talked about, like cleaning the trucks and cleaning the equipment and organizing those things and groceries and cooking,” Wendy said.

“And it's close to home.”

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