Friday, December 22, 2006

In the season of hope, a little was lost on a plane

It’s shaping up to be a gloomy Christmas for many of those who have the least in Prince Rupert, as the Social Assistance cheques scheduled to be handed out Wednesday, have gone missing while in transit from Vancouver to Prince Rupert.

Originally bumped from the Air Canada flight to Rupert, they then went missing with no one able to provide a location for the missing shipment, nor a timetable as to when things might get back on track. Cheques destined for Terrace and Kitimat made their journey without further event having been trucked to those cities yesterday, leaving only the North Coast to face Christmas with a rather dire situation to deal with.

The missing cheques only affect those recipients who do not receive their assistance by direct deposit, a cold reality for the roughly one third of all those who receive assistance in the region. For whatever reason, they are still required or prefer to receive their benefits by way of a paper cheque.

The mess certainly calls into question the procedures in place to ensure that the assistance is provided for those that most require it. And in an era of paper less financial transactions one wonders why the cheques could not have been run directly in Prince Rupert after a simple wire transfer or some other arrangement can be made. If nothing else, wouldn’t it have made sense to have sent the cheques a week earlier, post dated if necessary if only to guarantee availability at the time required?

Christmas season is always a busy one for the airlines, newspapers get bumped, parcels get bumped, even bags get bumped (and the occasional passenger), but surely common sense might have prevailed in making sure that the package containing the social assistance cheques made it onto the plane.

It really can baffle the mind that something as simple as making sure that the assistance granted is in place, somehow doesn't happen. It seems hard to fathom how things could fall so far off the rails at one of the most critical times of the year.

There was some hope that the cheques would have arrived by today and would have been distributed this afternoon or tomorrow, but so far no official word has come that this took place. Nor has any official, either governmental or corporate come to take responsibility and offer up an explanation.

The Daily News had complete coverage on the unacceptable display of bureaucratic and corporate bungling in their Thursday edition.

Recipients are kept waiting after their cheques bumped off Rupert flight
By James Vassallo
The Daily News
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Page one and five

While many have experienced the frustration of an air carrier losing their luggage during the holiday season, few will have experienced the outright loss of Christmas.

However, that is the prospect for a number of welfare recipients in Prince Rupert after local social assistance cheques were apparently bumped from an Air Canada flight – and then misplaced.

“The story from the post office is that Air Canada bumped the cheques for the flight,” and now nobody can locate them,” said Joy Thorkelson, United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU-CAW) northern representative late Thursday. “My question is what on earth was Air Canada thinking when they bumped welfare checks, and why did they bump them? We understand they bumped them because of Christmas presents.”

The cheques were supposed to come up North yesterday by truck, after they had been bumped from air cargo. While cheques for recipients in Terrace and Kitimat appear to have made it, the ones for those in Rupert could still not be found as of last night.

On average, one-third of welfare recipients do not receive money by direct deposit and would be affected. Those who pick up their cheques at the social assistance office will not be impacted because those cheques are generated locally.

“If you’re someone on welfare you want to be shopping when the deals are,” said Thorkelson.

People were hoping last night that the cheques would arrive today for distribution. Reports early Thursday suggested they had. However, even with the cheques arriving today, some may not be distributed until Friday.

“We’re concerned kids won’t have food in the morning, but we’ll deal with that when it happens,’ said Marty Bowles, Prince Rupert District Teachers Union (PRDTU) president.

“When this happened before (around three years ago), teachers put a fair amount of money into every elementary school to buy some breakfast for the kids.”

“I think schools are a little better prepared this time around because most of them have some food, but you know what it’s like… what it’s going to do is leave a lot of people in a very big lurch at the moment.”

While he’s hoping that many families have held a little something back, with it being the holiday season most would have spent their money trying to give their children something for Christmas, he said.

As to what happens if the cheques don’t show, local unions as well as the city are willing to turn up the heat as needed.

“I’ve made some calls to Air Canada and haven’t been able to get through to the people we need to get through to yet,” said Mayor Herb Pond.

“We, along with others, will certainly be pushing for some assistance, but obviously the best solution would be for the people to get their cheques.

It’s hard to sort out who’s ultimately responsible, but in the end we just need the cheques… If we have to go to the minister (today) we’ll go to the minister – that money has to come.”

As of last night, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance said none of their regional managers or field area staff were aware of the problem, but that they would be looking into it. However, there are a number of emergency measures that can be put into place if the cheques aren’t located.

“We do have lots of processes in place, so not to worry if you are one of the affected people,” said Barbara Stewart, media relations, Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance.

“We can issue emergency crisis grants, we can issue replacement cheques, assist them in all sorts of way.

“We’re going to look into the number of people who specifically would be affected in Prince Rupert, but we think it’s a rather small number as most of our clients do have the direct deposit.

The problem was originally brought to light through a network of union contacts beginning with the postal workers who contacted the teacher’s union. The teacher’s union in turn contacted the fish union, who have since reached out to their sister union the CAW umbrella at Air Canada. Postal workers have agreed to deliver the cheques even if they arrive after the mail has been delivered, and airline employees have initiated a search for the missing cheques.

Air Canada did not return calls for comment by press time.

News that many welfare recipients in Prince Rupert are waiting for their cheques would be troubling at the best of times but when it happens days before Christmas, troubling tale becomes a disaster.

Earle Gale, Editor
The Daily News
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Page four

Several families have now learned (as reported on today’s front page) that their social assistance cheques were apparently bumped from an Air Canada flight – and then misplaced.

The suggestion has been made that the carrier bumped the cheques to make way for Christmas presents, although this has not been confirmed.

What we know for sure is the cheques were supposed to arrive in Prince Rupert by road yesterday after they were bumped from the flight – and they didn’t make it.

While cheques for Terrace and Kitimat arrived by road, Rupert’s cheques were still missing as of last night.

While the debacle did not affect the two thirds of welfare recipients who receive their payments by direct deposit, it was a major issue for the one-third who rely on physical cheques. Clearly, everyone will get his or her money eventually. But at Christmas time, the clock is ticking like it is at no other time of the year.

Families will be eager to take advantage of pre-Christmas offers and sales and will be looking to fill their larders and buy presents before limited items are gone.

Many people on welfare are forced to manage their finances down to the last day and receiving a cheque a day or two late will mean they will be spending a day or two with no money.

The cheques were expected to arrive today.

Let’s hope so.

Local unions and politicians are already on the case and rightly demanding speedy action.

We can only hope that in future changes are made by government requiring shipping companies to give welfare cheques priority. When there is the very real prospect of children going hungry if cheques arrive late, every effort should be made to ensure they arrive on time.

***UPDATE*** From the Globe and Mail on line edition

British Columbia in Brief

Misplaced welfare cheques located

Prince Rupert -- Some welfare cheques feared missing between here and Vancouver were to be delivered yesterday and today.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance said the cheques arrived Wednesday night, too late for delivery. They were supposed to travel by truck after being bumped from air cargo but couldn't immediately be located.

"Canada Post has assured us they will be delivered today," Barbara Stewart said yesterday.

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