Remembering those who went on strike for this raise


If you paid close attention to the Ontario election that just happened you may have learned what homecare is (as opposed to hospital or long-term care) and who personal support workers (PSWs) are.

And if you were paying super close attention to the news during the winter, you may have heard about the 2-week strike that PSWs went on to protest their contract negotiations breaking down with their employer, homecare agency Red Cross Care Partners.

This summer Ontario PSWs (the more than 30,000 of them!) have a great reason to celebrate: a $1.50/hour raise was finally approved in the government’s budget, to be followed by other raises altogether totaling $4/hour by 2016.

This is exactly why those 4,500 hard workers went on strike: they knew the homecare wage situation was getting desperate, and needed to do something to help change that at the political level.

So it was very troubling for me to hear from a homecare PSW living in a small town in the Niagara region. She wrote:

“We have lost several terrific PSWs off our team over the last two months. Most of these PSWs supported our strike during the horrific winter weather, so it saddens me that they have decided to leave before the raise was implemented. The raise is much needed with the rising gas costs and to ensure that there is a better future for those of us who work in homecare, so I am hoping that this will come before we lose any more members.”

That says it all.

The hope is that one day the government will accept that homecare wages will be at parity with long-term care personal support work. But change is so frustratingly slow. However, the first ask of the “Sweet $16” campaign has been achieved and together we are on the right path.



Comparing provincial healthcare plans

Which province in Canada has the best healthcare system? That is a good question because there isn’t a right answer. It all depends on what you are comparing. Are we comparing cost efficiency? Are we talking out prescription drug coverage? Are we debating wait times? These are all interesting questions we can try to answer and summarize in this post.

When it comes spending our healthcare dollars wisely and efficiently, Quebec and Ontario are in front of the pack. Quebec receives the best overall value for the money they invest into their health systems. Ontario had the second-highest levels of efficiency, followed by New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. So whenever a politician or pundit talks about “trimming the fat” from our healthcare system, they should be reminded that Ontario already spends their healthcare dollars with a high level of efficiency.

How long are wait times in Ontario for special medical treatments like specialist appointments, surgery, diagnostic imaging, and pharmaceutical approvals? Some critics of our publicly funded healthcare system claim universal access creates long wait times. But what they don’t tell you is Ontario came in first place for the shortest wait times in Canada, followed by Quebec and Alberta.

But when it comes to the doctor shortage, Quebec fares the worst. Over 26% of Quebecers do not have a family doctor. The leader in this area was Nova Scotia. Only 6% of the province’s residents do not have a family doctor. New Brunswick came in second, and PEI in third. Ontario came in fourth, with only 8.41% of the population who doesn’t have a family doctor.

As for prescription drugs, Quebec bounces right back to the top. More than 89% of Quebecers have a prescription drug plan. Alberta comes in second place with 80%, and Ontario in third with 78%. Last was Newfoundland, where only 69% of their residents have some sort of drug coverage.

Ontario, BC and Alberta all receive good grades for keeping drug expenses low. They have the lowest number of people who don’t have to spend more than 3% of their after tax income on prescription drugs.

As for homecare, Ontario ranks somewhere in the middle. When it comes to homecare clients per 100,000 people, Alberta and New Brunswick are on top.

Ontario also does well with dental care plans. The province comes in second place, with 69% of its people having some kind of dental insurance. The top of the list was Alberta, with 71%. Last surprisingly was Quebec. Less than half or 46% of the people have a dental plan.

When it comes to nursing homes, Ontario doesn’t fare as well. The province offers only 45 beds per 1,000 seniors over the age of 65. That puts the province in sixth place. Top on the list are Manitoba and Saskatchewan with 60% and 50%, respectively. Quebec fares the worst, offering only 31 beds per 1,000 seniors.

As mentioned above, there is no real clear provincial leader in the healthcare field. Some provinces who receive top rankings in one area could be dead last in another. The good news is that Ontario on average fares well in most areas. They are either in the first or middle tier, but never on the bottom. But even though Ontario has a good record in drug coverage, family doctors, dental care, wait times and efficiency, that doesn’t mean we can’t be better.


What will bargaining look like with a Liberal government?

Many people voted for the Liberals in the recent provincial election on June 12 to strengthen our public services. They voted for a stronger, universal healthcare system, well-staffed and well-funded schools, and to employ highly qualified civil servants to deliver valuable government services that we all depend on.

Then why are there rumours circulating that the Ontario Liberals might start downsizing our government?

First, that’s what it just might be – rumours. But Premier Kathleen Wynne did promise to eliminate Ontario’s $12.5-billion deficit in three years. No one is really sure how she will accomplish this without drastic cuts to government services and delivering a big shock to our provincial economy.

The NDP is now claiming the Liberals may have plans to sell parts of the LCBO, Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation. The new provincial budget that was unveiled on July 14 did mention some kind of plan to “maximize” and “unlock” the value of these crown corporations. What does this mean? Nobody knows yet. But remember, other premiers such as Mike Harris, Ernie Eves, and Dalton McGuinty talked about privatization but it never happened. So this might just be talk.

But there is verbal talk about a wage freeze. The Ontario Government has just begun bargaining with the Ontario Medical Association. Minister of Health Eric Hoskins said the government doesn’t have the money for wage increases. Many people expect the government to make the same argument when it begins negotiating a new contract for Ontario’s teachers, which begins in the fall.

Is this a sign of things to come? We have to remember the Ontario government is an employer. Just about every single employer SEIU bargains with says they don’t have money for a raise. But that doesn’t mean the employer always gets what they want. And there is evidence to suggest SEIU members may do well under a Liberal government. So far, the newly-elected Liberal government has been very supportive of issues that are important to healthcare workers. Kathleen Wynne’s recent budget vows will increase the wage of an Ontario homecare PSW to $16.50 an hour by 2017.

 And so it seems we will have to wait and see how the story unfolds for negotiations after this recent provincial election, but we will remain hopeful.



Dinner conversations & debunking myths

I had dinner with an old friend the other night. She invited me over for a home cooked meal and even baked me a cake. Since I’ve been on the road a lot lately with work I figured that it was great way to enjoy a home cooked meal and catch up with a friend who I’ve known for years. I was pretty excited for it too. We’ve always gotten along pretty well but never really crossed that line of leaving the “friend zone.”

On paper it seemed like it was going to be a great night, but it all seemed to take a turn for the worse once she asked a very common question: “How’s work?”

Work was busy. At the time I had just wrapped up a video shoot in Hamilton with two lovely personal support workers, Carmen and Rachel. The focus of the video was to shed some light some real life issues facing these two PSWs; this boiled down to the issue of pensions. I described the process of coming up with the concept of the video, showing the contrast between these two very different women in two very different stages in their lives. An older, more established woman whose children have left the nest to raise children of their own, versus a young woman about to have her first child while still living under the roof of her parents’ home. The contrasts were many between the two PSWs, but the love for their profession and clients was similar.

The shoot was a lot of work, but rewarding and inspiring. I got to work with some really cool people whom I respect professionally. Carmen and Rachel did an excellent job sharing some of their personal stories, giving some much needed insight into some of the challenges of being a personal support worker. This wasn’t my first time working with Carmen and Rachel; they both have both played a key role in educating and informing the public of the value of Personal Support Workers. In fact, both of them have sat and discussed the future of the profession with Premier Kathleen Wynne and deputy Premier Deb Matthews.

My date had seen the Justice 4 PSWs campaign that SEIU had launched, on her commute to work; she also made mention before that she read this blog, and has kept up to date of all the political happenings within the healthcare industry. She’s always been an outspoken person and I admire that quality greatly, but having just told her about work, she then felt the need to express her thoughts on PSWs.

“I don’t understand why they’re getting so much attention; they’re not even qualified to do much.”

My heart sank, I tried not to react too harshly so I took a moment and chose my words. Having worked so closely to many personal support workers within the past year, I thought of how they would react to such a harsh statement. I knew of the hardships that they had to endure during their strike, not being fairly compensated for the work that they do. Though they may not be ‘qualified to do much’, they certainly are expected to go above and beyond their call of duty- administering medicine, cleaning, caring, soothing, chatting, reassuring, befriending, and the list goes on. I thought of the issues of verbal and physical abuse that many of them had to endure in order to make an honest wage for their families.  My date was a nurse, so I would have hoped that she would understand some of the hardships faced by frontline healthcare staff; clearly she did not.

“The work they do is highly skilled, but the care they provide is priceless. Let’s hope you never need the help of a PSWs, because that PSW might be the last person you see before you die,” was my immediate response.

We chatted some more about the issue, but I knew that my mind that I had checked out from the date. My appetite was gone, even the beautiful cake looked less appealing after her comments. I thanked her for the lovely meal and made my way to the exit. The evening reminded me that though PSWs are continuing to educate the public and beat stigma’s, there is still work to be done.


Housing First- a creative way to help others

A couple of weeks ago I spent hours enthralled by a short video series on the research project by the National Film Board called At Home: In search of a cure for a 21st Century Crisis. It’s been my opinion for a while that we should pay for housing out of public funds if it comes to that so that people have a starting point from which to solve some of their other problems. For this reason, this project seemed really interesting and innovative.

Watching those videos brought me right back mentally to the first time I ever saw a homeless person lying on the street and asking for change. He seemed old and looked really rough. He was talkative. It was in Toronto and I was a 15 year-old out-of-towner.

What I knew then about poverty and mental illness was limited to the few families I knew in my community and what I experienced within my own home, where we always had a safe place to sleep and plenty of nutritious meals. So I was shocked and saddened and concerned when I met that man, the first homeless person I ever saw, but I didn’t understand him or his situation.

I think I get it a bit better now, but not fully. I now know that it’s not smart or compassionate to think about people in this situation as “the homeless.” Their precarious (or total lack of) housing doesn’t define them, but it is a problem. These people are the marginalized of society, and are often dealing with not only chronic poverty but issues around addiction and/or abuse and/or mental illness.

The At Home/Chez Soi project by the Mental Health Commission of Canada aimed to see what would happen if people without homes were given free housing as a social service. It is a “housing first” model implemented in New York. The Canadian found that where housing was covered first, massive savings were found from other areas such as healthcare and the prison system.

Homelessness is not an easy or simple problem, but it is possible to work on. Paying for housing first, so that people actually have a chance to focus on issues other than poverty later, seems like one of the best ways to do it.


Union membership grew in size last year. But will the growth last?

Over the past 30 years the number of Canadian workers who are members of a union have gone down. In 1981, 38% of Canadian employees belonged to a union. Today, that number is only 30%. But last year, unionization rates went up by 1% in 2013. Although 1% may not seem like a big number, over a one-year period, it’s a pretty sizable increase.

Why did union membership increase last year? There are a few reasons. The main reason is the impact of the 2008 recession is starting to wear off. Private companies who employ unionized workers are starting to hire again. Federal and provincial governments are also collecting more tax revenue and have the money to hire more people to run our hospitals, care for the elderly in nursing homes, and deliver essential government services.

Does that mean unionization rates will continue to go up next year? Not necessarily. During the recession many workplaces closed down and relocated to other countries that don’t offer the same protections Canadian workers have. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence these jobs are coming back. That means Canadian labour unions need to focus more on organizing new workers. If we don’t, the labour movement will end up like the United States and France, where only 12% and 7% of workers are unionized, respectively.

Even though organizing is important, it’s still not enough. Right now our provincial labour laws gives far too much power to the employer. For example, 10 years ago the employees at Wal-Mart in Jonquière, Quebec, voted to join a union. What did Wal-Mart do? They shut the store down!

Years later the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Wal-Mart engaged in bad labour practices and will have to compensate their staff for closing the store. But it took 10 years. It should have happened much sooner. And compared to the profits Wal-Mart makes in any given year, the compensation they will hand out to their former employees will be minimal. Shutting down the worksite and paying a fine shouldn’t be the “cost of doing business.” Our laws should penalize companies sooner for this kind of behavior. This is just one of the ways our labour laws gives employers an unfair advantage.

In fact, we can make some simple changes to our labour laws that would make it much easier to form a union. First, if more than 50% of the employees in a workplace sign a union card, the unit would be automatically certified with a union instead of going through a contentious ballot vote. During the vote, employers will usually launch an anti-union campaign that sometimes uses heavy-handed tactics to pressure employees to vote against the union.

Second, employers would be required to proceed to arbitration if they don’t deliver a contract to their recently unionized workers 120 days after the union is certified. Employers have been known to stall contract negotiations for years.

Third, employers who violate existing labour laws should face stiffer fines and penalties. For example, sometimes companies will fire workers who are trying to form a union in their workplace. If the company is charged and taken to court, they are willing to pay the financial penalty because it’s minimal.

Even though unions did grow last year, this growth may not continue in 2014. If we made some small changes to our labour laws, there is a better chance this growth will continue for the next decade.