Alberta man stunned when disability payments decreased during spouse’s maternity leave

When Trent and Seana Tatomir looked at their bank account right before Christmas 2023, they were shocked. 

“Merry Christmas,” Trent said. “Here’s a kick in the teeth.”

Trent, 32, was injured in a workplace accident and for the past four years has relied on payments from Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program.

Seana, 36, gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Saoirse, last October.

Before Saoirse was born, Seana was earning about $2,930 a month in retail management. Trent’s monthly AISH payments were $1,502.

On maternity benefits through employment insurance, Seana’s income fell to $2,200 a month, and Trent’s AISH payments decreased to $1,177.

That meant the Fort McMurray couple was bringing in $1,055 less than before, with an extra mouth to feed at home. 

“We were thinking it had to have been a mistake,” Trent said.

But it wasn’t.

Advocates across Alberta are looking to the government to reassess the rules around the province’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program. Some say the program penalizes people with disabilities when they want to have children.

AISH provides financial and health benefits for 77,000 Albertans with medical conditions that stop them from earning a living.

This year the province is spending $1.6 billion on the program, which has a set of income exemptions that determine the amount of money any individual can receive.

The AISH recipient’s income is also dependent on the income of their spouse or partner. When a spouse receives more money, AISH payments for the partner with a disability decrease.

Advocates say the system can force people with disabilities to stay in unsafe relationships, cause financial hardship and limit clients’ ability to have a family.

Trent Tatomir feeds his daughter, Saoirse. Trent didn’t expect to lose part of his AISH payment went his wife went on maternity leave. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

When they learned that Trent’s AISH payments had been lowered after the birth of their daughter, the Tatomirs were startled. They hadn’t seen it coming. In fact, Trent had been expecting an increase — an extra $222 a month in a child benefit.

But the reduction is baked into AISH’s legislation. 

The amount of money a person is eligible for is dependent on the income of their partner, and employment income and social assistance income are calculated and treated differently. 

For example, Trent can get a maximum of $1,863 per month from AISH. But because he is married, he loses 50 cents on every dollar Seana makes over $2,612, up to a maximum exemption of $2,981 per month.

When Seana went on maternity leave and started receiving employment insurance (EI) benefits, Trent’s payment structure changed.

Now, he loses 75 cents on every dollar Seana makes over $875.

When Seana returns to the workforce, the deductions from Trent’s AISH payments should return to what they were before she went on maternity leave. 

Because of the current AISH structure, every time Seana gets a raise at work, Trent loses money. For example, if Seana started earning an extra $80 per week, Trent would see his AISH payment reduced by $40.

“You basically don’t get any independence,” he said. “You’re classified as part of her.” 

Trent was injured on the job in Ireland in 2017. He was struck by a forklift that picked him up by his lower back. He was left with herniated and torn disks, and injuries to his hips. He now lives with chronic pain syndrome and numbness in his legs. 

“I don’t sleep well. I can’t walk far. I can’t stand long,” he said.

You’re classified as part of her.– Trent Tatomir

And while he’s currently able to help lift his infant daughter, he knows that his time doing so is limited as she gets heavier and larger.

Trent said it feels like the program is trying to hurry Seana back to work. He believes maternity leave should be exempt from the deductions because his wife is only off work temporarily.

When he appealed the change in payment, his appeal was denied. 

“The director’s representative stated that as presented earlier, the receipt of EI income is handled differently and did result in a reduction of AISH income,” the decision said. “The treatment of these types of income is mandated in legislation and is not discretionary.”

The decision said a program official was not aware why Trent wasn’t notified that his AISH benefits would be affected by the change from (his wife’s) employment to EI benefits.

Alexandru Cioban, press secretary for Jason Nixon, Alberta’s minister of seniors, community and social services, said in an email that the treatment of income sources is enshrined in the AISH Act and its regulations.

MLA Marie Renaud, NDP Official Opposition critic for seniors, community and social services, said the benefit reductions “are clawbacks. This is the way the provincial government keeps the cost of benefits like AISH and Income Support down.”

She said it creates financial dependence on a partner, and is “actually quite dangerous in many cases. It’s certainly not helpful for reducing the depth of poverty that people experience when they’re on AISH.”

She said it’s something that’s needed to change for years. 

“It’s a steady, steady problem,” Renaud said, and “a tragic example of a government doing everything in its power to harm people by not changing the rules.”

Renaud asked Nixon about the policy in the legislature on Tuesday. She asked him to explain how deepening the poverty of disabled Albertans via AISH regulations makes life better for them. 

In response, Nixon said he’s proud to be part of a government that is putting forward “record investments in AISH.” 

A man with sunglasses stands in front of an apartment building.
Andrew Green, a lawyer with the Edmonton Community Legal Centre, said the AISH program’s delivery has led to people being unable to pay for necessities like rent and food. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Andrew Green, a lawyer with the Edmonton Community Legal Centre, has been assisting people on AISH for four years. He says Trent’s problem is common, but one he can’t do much to help.

“If someone loses their job or goes on EI maternity leave, benefits are reduced because EI is treated more harshly than employment income,” Green said in an interview. 

“It has led to people becoming homeless in the past. It’s led to people choosing to eat less on a daily basis and to make choices between paying rent and paying a power bill.”

While AISH recipients can appeal, it’s not going to make a difference, said Green. The rules are baked into the legislation, and any change to the rules would need to be at a political level.

He said the calculations can be complicated and difficult to understand, and there’s no publicly available calculator to help people on the program understand it better.

Sudden changes in AISH payments can often create a crisis, said Green. “[Clients] may have as little as a month’s notice that their income is changing.” 

He said the legislation needs to be reviewed, with input from the community of people with disabilities.

The issue points to the often-talked about right to marry, he said. It leads to people asking why their benefits are tied to their partner’s, and questioning if they are somehow a ward of their partner.

Risk of abuse

Keri McEachern, an executive board member with the Edmonton-based Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, said the issue highlights that “people with disabilities are directly discriminated [against] on the basis of family status, disability and source of income.” 

“Oftentimes people will not get involved or want to be in relationships with people who are on AISH because it’s a burden for one single income earner to support everyone,” McEachern said. 

She said removing part of a person’s income based on the income of their spouse can create a financially abusive relationship, and can trap people in physically abusive relationships. 

“They are at great risk of domestic violence and exploitation, and we are very concerned that it’s keeping people in unsafe housing as well,” McEachern said. 

McEachern said she knows many people who are avoiding moving in with a partner or getting married because of the financial impact.

Trent Tatomir says he and his family are lucky, as they live with his parents and get a lot of financial support from them. But that isn’t the case for everyone. He’s working on a petition to have the policies reviewed.

His wife said it’s too late for her family to get any extra help from AISH while she’s on maternity leave, but she’s hoping to see changes to legislation so this doesn’t’ impact families in the future.

“We have a roof over our heads, there’s food in the cupboard … but there’s going to be a family that doesn’t have the support behind them,” she said.

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