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Ontario health-care workers face multiple workplace issues entering bargaining

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Many of Ontario’s 70,000 health-care workers are complaining about long hours, poor working conditions, burnout issues, lack of respect from management and little mental health support.

In a virtual meeting with media from across the province on Monday, members of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU/CUPE) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare say they are entering bargaining with the province as an “exhausted workforce.”

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Union members include registered practical nurses, personal support workers, ward clerks, cleaners and other front-line hospital staff.

“Many are demoralized by the jarring disconnect between the generous praise that the Doug Ford government gives them publicly — as pandemic heroes — and the stark reality of how it treats them. A legislated wage cap which dooms them to real cuts to wages, emergency orders that take away their workplace rights, pandemic pay for only a fraction of them, and continuing challenges protecting themselves and patients from what we know is an airborne-transmitted virus,” a news release from OCHU/CUPE said.

The union said more than 23,000 health-care workers have contracted COVID-19 at work and 24 have died.

“Health-care workers have paid a stiff price during the battle against the coronavirus,” Michael Hurley, president of OCHU, said during the virtual meeting. “For the great majority of them, at least half are working with high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.”

Hurley said the workers are trying to provide high-quality care while underequipped in environments that are understaffed.”

Two registered practical nurses, one from Hamilton and the other from Thunder Bay, complained during the meeting about working conditions, long hours, little help with balancing a home life, stress and little chance of receiving a pay raise in the future.

OCHU/CUPE and SEIU Healthcare, which together represent most of Ontario’s hospital workers, are calling for the repeal of Bill 124 and the right to freely bargain compensation items such as wages and benefit improvements.

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Bill 124 limits wage increases and total compensation increases for public sector workers, including hospital staff, to no more than one per cent a year while inflation was 2.2 per cent in March 2021 year over year and 3.4 per cent in April 2021 (year over year), said the unions.

“This means that these health-care heroes will be taking a real wage cut of 2.4 per cent in the first year of their contract,” Hurley said. “It says that, unlike police, unlike fire, unlike paramedics, unlike other male-dominated first responders, health-care workers will be wage limited to one per cent in each of the three years.”

The unions also complained about hospital workers not being able to bargain access to psychological access counselling. The unions claim half of the front-line workforce identifies as in poor mental health or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of working endless hours at high risk during the pandemic.

“Over half the nurses that we represent have described their mental health as poor or extremely poor. We will not be able to bargain that for them,” Hurley said.

He would like to see a deal similar to the one the Quebec government made with its health-care workers, who recently signed a three-year agreement for their public sector workforce, including health care, that increased wages by two per cent a year, with one per cent lump sums in the first and third year.

Barb DeRoche, president of CUPE 1974, which represents approximately 2,000 health-care workers at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, said a number of the local members have had some mental health issues due to stress during the pandemic.

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“The circumstances that they’ve been under, working with their PPE on and working long hours, the staff has been having to work a lot of overtime because of shortage of staff,” she said in an interview.

“They do their job because they believe in the patients. Over the last year and a half, they’ve been touted as heroes, yet when it comes to being treated fairly and equally over other people, they feel they’re not.”

Hospital sector members started a provincewide sticker workplace action on Monday calling for a repeal of Bill 124. A virtual provincial rally is scheduled for Saturday.

imacalpine@postmedia.com

twitter.com/IanMacAlpine


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