Kathleen Wynne made two solemn commitments on the 2014 campaign trail:
A new public pension plan for Ontario’s most vulnerable workers.
And a boost for low-wage staff who care for the province’s most vulnerable patients.
It’s one thing for a premier to make airy promises at 30,000 feet. But at ground level, navigating through the political fog isn’t so easy for one group of poorly paid nurses caught in a bitter seven-month labour dispute.
For them, Wynne’s rhetoric rings hollow as the contradictions in Ontario politics — and its increasingly privatized health-care system — are laid bare.
Fighting for a first contract from CarePartners — their for-profit, publicly funded employer — the OPSEU homecare nurses in the Hamilton-Niagara region were stunned to get a contract offer that not only undermined their union but undercut the Wynne government’s pension promise.
CarePartners demanded that its nurses pay the full freight for Wynne’s promised Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP) — not just the employee share, but the mandated employer contribution (plus administration costs). Never mind the premier’s pledge that the ORPP would be a cost-shared plan.
A private company whose revenues derive from the public purse is trying to dump its full Ontario pension costs on workers. And Wynne’s Liberal government is watching from the sidelines.
CarePartners declined to comment on its pension demands. Vice-president of operations Karen MacNeil referred all questions to an outside public relations specialist, Bill Walker, who replied with a one-line email not responding to the pension question. The company later sent a news release boasting of superior “patient satisfaction” based on a “recent informal patient survey.”
OPSEU president Smokey Thomas is “flabbergasted” by the company’s proposed pension dodge, and furious about the government’s inattention — and inaction. When frustrated OPSEU nurses conducted a sit-in outside the offices of Health Minister Eric Hoskins last August alleging bad faith bargaining, the union leader told me he got an urgent call from Wynne’s chief of staff, Tom Teahen, trying to sort things out.
Thomas calmed his union members by securing a meeting with the health minister. When they met, Hoskins “seemed shocked” by the working conditions of nurses, according to the head of the new union local, Erin Warman.
“He seemed to really care, and he was going to follow up,” Warman recalled.
A Hoskins spokesperson says ministry staff contacted CarePartners and urged both sides to negotiate. The union also sought help from the labour ministry, but the result, a few weeks later, was the unprecedented pension proposal from CarePartners.
Now the dispute is headed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board on Thursday, where OPSEU is seeking arbitration to obtain a first contract for its nurses.
So far the government has seemed unable to use moral suasion on CarePartners, even though the company gets its revenues from the provincial treasury. A contract dating from 2007 with the local Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) funnelled more than $8 million into CarePartners’ coffers last year.
OPSEU has convened local town hall meetings where the union says patients have been raising concerns about care during the seven-month strike. Local media have also reported on patients upset by the upheaval of losing their regular nurses.
But Tom Peirce, vice-president of the regional CCAC (covering Hamilton to Niagara) says it has not deducted any payments from CarePartners during the strike because medical services have been maintained with replacement workers. While the strike disruption “is an unfortunate situation,” the CCAC’s hands are tied by a province-wide moratorium on competitive bidding that treats private contractors as “evergreens,” Pierce says.
Under government policy, the contracts are rolled over automatically — a provision that makes no public policy sense, as the auditor general pointed out in a recent report.
Warman, the local union president who is also a registered practical nurse, says if a patient visit takes longer than an hour, her effective hourly wage can dip below the legal minimum wage of $11.25, because she is paid piecework, per patient. At that rate, she earns from $20,000 to $28,000 a year, depending on patient assignments. In a September proposal to the union, CarePartners offered a lump sum of 0.7 per cent a year upon signing, but no increase to the base wage, and they are going into mediation Thursday.
In the 2014 campaign, Wynne’s Liberals won key union support by promising a hefty $4 pay hike for personal support workers (PSWs) earning $12.50 an hour in home care. But low-paid piecework nurses like Warman are on their own, along with their union.
The bitter strike is symptomatic of what’s ailing home care in Ontario. The pension privation and salary squeezes are a form of double jeopardy for these CCAC workers, leaving OPSEU’s Smokey Thomas is steaming. He is crying foul, and foul-mouthed, about how the government is dealing with private, for-profit operators:
“You’re gonna let them tell you to go f--- yourselves — well, aren’t you just a bunch of weenies,” Thomas says he told the Liberals. “They’ve never done nothing.”