But only a minority of those receiving passes are flouting regulations, says minister for provincial department that launched the pilot program
As soon as the province began sending out bus passes to income-support recipients served by Metrobus, reports began rolling in about online classified ads seeking to sell the passes.
Ads sought anywhere from $150 to a few hundred dollars for the passes, which the government has warned are non-transferable.
Initially slated to launch in April 2020, the pilot program for the metro area — St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Paradise — was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But beginning last week, the passes were finally mailed out.
Since then, Immigration, Skills and Labour Minister Gerry Byrne said the department has been getting unsolicited tips from people, some pointing at bus pass posts on online classified and marketplace sites.
“I am concerned — it is very regrettable individuals would do this. … The emphasis here is on buyer beware. If you’re buying something you think is legitimate, that is nontransferable … you will have no recourse from the government to recoup the money.” — Gerry Byrne
The unit in charge of compliance — those who handle income-support files — is tasked with looking into the tips and determining if they have merit, which would result in the pass being cancelled, which leaves the buyer high and dry.
All eligible clients have been made aware that the passes are non-transferable, Byrne noted, adding they are electronic and can easily be cancelled.
“In fairness, this is not entirely unique. There are lots of instances where throughout the course of programming, people provide insights and tips,” Byrne said.
“I am concerned — it is very regrettable individuals would do this. … The emphasis here is on buyer beware. If you’re buying something you think is legitimate, that is nontransferable … you will have no recourse from the government to recoup the money.”
But Byrne said with 10,000 passes issued, the vast majority of the eligible income-support clients are abiding by the spirit and letter of the law, and appreciate the value to their circumstances — to get to jobs, medical appointments and other destinations, and to do errands.
After a year, the pilot project will be analyzed.
The department is monitoring social media and market sites, but Byrne said anyone suspected of selling or trying to sell the passes will be treated fairly with a presumption of innocence until reviewed.
He noted client-service officers regularly meet and discuss the circumstances of income-support clients, and there are robust compliance mechanisms in place.
The merits of the bus pass program outweigh the instances of alleged infractions, Byrne said.
“I really and truly hope this is not becoming a rallying cry to make a generalization about those on income support. It’s a very small minority who appear to be doing this,” he said.
Anti-poverty and disability-rights advocate Edward Sawdon agrees about the vital importance of the program.
Sawdon used to rely on the bus and the Go-Bus, but now has his own transportation.
He said the government should not only continue the bus pass program, but extend it to persons with disabilities who don’t have alternate transportation assistance and the working poor who aren’t eligible for income support — basically anyone who really needs it based on financial circumstances.
“There are always people who need it because of their low-income situation,” said the St. John’s resident, who lives with a disability.
Sawdon said there will be people on income support who don't need the bus pass because they have other sources of transportation, and that’s when client-support staff should be reviewing who needs it and issuing the passes based on circumstances.
"The fact that there are people abusing the system shouldn't be a deterrent to try to implement a program that is going to benefit a lot of people.” — Edward Sawdon
“It doesn't matter what kind of system the government puts in, there will always be a few people who are going to take advantage, use it or abuse it— it’s just the way the world operates,” Sawdon said.
“I really think the fact that there are people abusing the system shouldn't be a deterrent to try to implement a program that is going to benefit a lot of people.”
For those who appreciate the pass, he said, it’s a vital help for getting around.
“We do need the program and believe the majority of people on income support need it no matter what,” Sawdon said.
“It ties into a much bigger issue — if people had a guaranteed basic income throughout the province and throughout the country, people would be able to afford their own bus pass without any government-subsidized program like we have now in place.”
Sawdon also noted that people who are on income support still contribute to society through taxes or volunteer activities.
“The fact is poverty exists and it costs us in so many ways,” he said.
“In order to make life more affordable and bearable, (and ensure) a good quality of life for all of us, having a program like this is a win-win. It increases (bus) ridership, I imagine.”