Thursday, November 4, 2010

New Zealand phases out wage subsidies that help business employ disabled people

From The Marlborough Express in New Zealand:

Blenheim workers with disabilities face being laid off as government wage subsidies for disabled workers are phased out.

A Blenheim garden centre set up as a trust to employ disabled people has lost more than $20,000 in subsidies so far this year, says the nursery's manager, Gaye Williamson.

The Selmes Garden Trust reopened at its new site in Battys Rd a year ago after a big community fundraising campaign.

And Mark Witchalls, the director of Blenheim Foods, which also employs disabled people, says the cuts "make it difficult to fulfil the WorkBridge slogan of `real jobs for people with disabilities"'.

WorkBridge pays Ministry of Social Development productivity allowances to businesses employing disabled people, based on the time it takes to do a job.

Forty per cent of the wage bill is covered for a disabled person judged 60 per cent productive.

The Blenheim business managers say sliding scales that reduce each worker's subsidy by 5 per cent every six months were introduced in January.

WorkBridge chief executive officer Grant Cleland disagrees, saying the policy changed over the last two years.

There were no fixed formulae, and reducing subsidies as disabled people become more capable of doing their jobs spread the money for disabled employment subsidies across more people, he said.

"Each case is treated on its own merits," he said.

Individuals or employers could appeal WorkBridge's funding decisions.

Selmes Garden Trust employs five fulltime and five part-time mostly intellectually disabled workers and Blenheim Foods two fulltime and one part-time workers with disabilities.

Mrs Williamson said WorkBridge now assumed someone assessed as 60 per cent productive would improve to 65 per cent in six months time, then 70 per cent, "all the way to perfection".

"The problem for us is that people with a disability do not usually improve.

"People have worked at Selmes for 25 years with little improvement ... and with intellectual disability something taught today can be gone tomorrow."

This year WorkBridge had also rejected applications for subsidised employment, saying an individual with limited ability was unsuitable for a job at the Selmes nursery, and only approved a limited allowance for a Blenheim Foods worker.

One person at each business had lost their jobs as a result.

Mrs Williamson said the trust was considering warning new employees that their job was dependent on the subsidy being approved.

Mr Witchalls said: "It devastated me, him and the team at Blenheim Foods."

Selmes Garden Trust trustees Tony Oberdries and John Lundon say the nursery's turnover was growing, but there was a roughly $100,000 shortfall in the last year's budget already covered by donations from the Marlborough community.

Ad Feedback They said the cuts did not make sense as employment subsidies cost taxpayers less than benefits.

Five employees had been taken off benefits since working at the nursery.

Mr Lundon said the Selmes Garden Trust had a waiting list of 18 disabled people wanting a job and would love to offer more jobs.

Many of these people would be happy to work for free, but using disabled volunteers was illegal.

Selmes Garden Trust took over a nursery business previously run by IHC.

The trust was established in 2007 when IHC sold its property in Selmes Rd, Rapaura, where a nursery and garden centre employing people with intellectual disabilities had been set up 19 years earlier.