NOTE: Following the public concern and controversy, on March 21, 2019 the provincial government announced that they will be revisiting the proposed changes to the Ontario Autism Program, in particular to ensure that all families with a child with autism will be eligible for some level of provincial funding and that some children with more severe autism can qualify for additional assistance.  

There have been a number of announcements over the last several weeks about changes to the Ontario Autism Program (OAP), all of which have been met with concern and controversy. CBC News summarizes the changes as follows:

[T]he revamped program…aims to clear a wait list of 23,000 children by providing direct funding to all kids diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Families will get up to $20,000 per year for treatment for children under six and $5,000 a year for children six to 18, but intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year.

The new program kicks in on April 1, and families say they are still lacking details of how it will work. Critics say it will leave thousands of children with autism in schools without the proper supports.

Many are concerned that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to resource allocation, as well as the limits on funding for those with incomes at or over $55,000, will lead to under-treatment for many children and burdens on parents and teachers.

Regardless of your political affiliation, most Ontarians can sympathize with the impact that the short-notice changes will have on children living with autism and on their families and caregivers.  These changes have a ripple effect on health care, education, as well as businesses. 

Below is a summary of the matters that employers and employees should consider before the changes kick in on April 1:

  • Increased use of Family Responsibility Leave (FRL) days: FRL is a carve-out remaining from the old Personal Emergency Leave, which was eliminated on January 1, 2019.  Employees are entitled to take up to 3 days of job-protected, unpaid time off per year because of an illness, injury, medical emergency, or urgent matter relating to a relative, including a child.   By comparison, in 2018, employees could take up to 10 days off for such issues (the first 2 days of which were paid).  Employees with caregiving responsibilities will likely find this new, limited leave insufficient and may need to take vacation days, personal days, other ESA leaves (it could be argued that Family Caregiver Leave applies) or unpaid time off to address their new or different responsibilities.
  • Assessment of family status requests: Even if an employee’s FRL days, sick days and vacation days are exhausted, employers still have an obligation to accommodate family status needs.  An employee who is in a parent-child relationship and has care obligations that cannot be delegated may need accommodations, such as time off, flexible working hours, remote work days, etc., to fulfil their obligations.  Employers cannot dismiss these obligations lightly.  Requests for workplace changes arising from family status needs should be accepted and considered on a case-by-case basis in good faith, including consideration of whether an accommodation is necessary; the ways in which it can be provided; and how workplace expectations will change, if at all.
  • Hesitation about income changes: Parents who were not on the waiting list and who will receive less funding will bear additional costs for their children’s treatment, therapy and support.  However, they may be in a catch-22: their costs have increased but if they work (and earn) more to offset those costs, they may pass the $55,000 threshold and qualify for less funding.  Employers may find employees wary of working extra hours in fear of compromising their funding amounts, which will be particularly difficult in manufacturing and other shift-dependent businesses.
  • Watching for caregiver burnout and resulting productivity issues: HR partners must be mindful of caregiver burnout amongst employees, particularly with employees whose burdens grow as a result of the changes to OAP.  The burnout can lead to performance issues or extended time off as a result of mental illness, including short- and long-term disability leaves.  In short, these will lead to increased costs and uncertainty for employers, so prevention and quick response will be key.

As the government continues to announce new changes to offset the impact of OAP reform, including new funding for schools that will be taking students living with autism currently only in school part-time, everyone in the workplace must prepare for and be respectful of the ripple effect starting on April 1.

Jennifer Heath

Partner & Co-Founder

Picture by Ben Wicks.