Close your eyes. Relax your mind. Breathe.

Many SEIU Healthcare staff hear those phrases whispered every week when they participate in weekly yoga classes.

For the past six weeks, SEIU Healthcare staff have the chance to get out of their office chair and onto a yoga mat for a chance to relax their mind and body through meditation, stretching and breathing techniques. The classes are held every Wednesday at lunchtime to break up the week and day and give staff a chance to refocus their mind.

Yoga at SEIU Healthcare

Human Resources Administrator Cecilia Ng was overjoyed that she could participate in Yoga, as her former workplace had the same routine. She says, “I love the idea of doing Yoga at work as it helps me with stretching especially after long hours of sitting in front of a computer.”

The initiative was launched by SEIU Healthcare’s Wellness Committee, which formed in the beginning of 2015 to address high stress levels which are all too familiar for our staff, our members and Canadians in general. To address these issues, the Committee has led a number of initiatives to address mental health, physical health and nutritional health – with Yoga being one that melds all of these aspects.

As a result, Yoga has been the most popular initiative by far, where approximately 30 people showed up to the first Yoga sessions.

Angie Jacome, an administrative support employee, who has worked at SEIU Healthcare for 33 years, is a regular now as it helps with her body aches.

Angie says, “The stretches I showed you the other day makes me feel taller. It must be that my tight muscles are stretching therefore making me more relaxed.”

Not only have these classes helped build individual strength, but it has also developed into a team building exercise. Every week, there are also new faces joining in, many of whom are trying Yoga for the first time.

Natasha Luckhardt, a researcher and member of the Wellness Committee says, “I love how it brings everyone in the office together. I get to talk to people from different departments who I’ve only had the chance to talk to when I’m passing them in the hallways.”

Alex Murphy, a Pay Equity Representative, says that she feels energized and rejuvenated after every Yoga session. She says, “It’s wonderful to get the exercise and practice in mid-week. Thanks to the Wellness Committee and the organization for giving us this opportunity.”

Her colleague, Lisa Wong, also works as a pay equity representative and is equally as excited about the weekly classes. Lisa says, “I would say it helped me to reduce stress, focus and concentrate on my work better after a session.”

Dave Pielas, SEIU Healthcare’s HR Manager and wellness committee member, also noticed how calm and focused he is after the sessions. Initially, Dave was a bit nervous about joining in because he had never tried Yoga. Since trying it, he’s really grateful as he feels a “rush of calm” for the rest of the afternoon and even into the days following.

Matt Cathmoir, a researcher at SEIU Healthcare, tried Yoga for the first time last week, walking bravely to the front of the class. Afterwards, Matt said it was “a challenging, yet rewarding experience both mentally and physically.”

As well as being helpful for employees, the benefits of Yoga extend to SEIU Healthcare as an employer as well.

As worker representatives, we know that high levels of job stress can lead to employee absenteeism, physical and mental health issues and an unhealthy work environment. We also know that the employer is responsible for ensuring a healthy and safe environment, which is why SEIU Healthcare has created a wellness committee for their internal staff.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, every dollar invested in workplace wellness, on initiatives such as Yoga, companies can expect $3 in cost savings or benefits.

By strengthening our staff’s health, both in their body and mind, we can work even harder to ensure that our members’ well-being is protected, encouraged and fought for.

2 years later: remembering the homecare strike

Homecare - the journey continues

We’re nearing the end of 2015 and it’s been 2 years since what we call around here “the Red Cross strike.”

$12.50/hour. At the time, that was the minimum wage for homecare personal support workers (PSWs)—the people who support you, listen to you, check in on you and help you with activities of daily living when you need extra help to live independently at home.

And PSWs weren’t getting the respect they deserved either. Contract negotiation after contract negotiation, they were offered either nothing at all, or tiny raises. Given the cost of living, and given the fact that most PSWs use their own vehicles and don’t get paid in between client visits, this was unsustainable.

Our members felt they had to do what no care provider ever wants to do, and went on strike. About 4,500 homecare workers across the province were taking a stand.

2013 Red Cross strike

President Sharleen Stewart keeps spirits up on the picket line in Bancroft in 2013

It was the holiday season and a very cold and snowy winter. The strike lasted for two weeks, and finally came to an end on Christmas Eve when the employer agreed to arbitration.

The strike challenged everyone. It challenged workers to show up to the picket line and stand in solidarity. It challenged union leadership to find an appropriate and fair resolution as quickly as possible. It challenged the media to care about these individuals who are some of the lowest paid healthcare workers out there. It challenged homecare clients and families to support their PSWs even though they weren’t getting the service they deserved while their PSWs were out on strike.

And it challenged the Ontario government to take PSWs seriously and recognize the incredible value they bring to the healthcare system.

Thanks to those who stood up, and thanks to those who have gotten engaged in politics as part of SEIU Healthcare’s “purple party,” over 30,000 PSWs got raises from the government, and the minimum wage for PSWs in 2016 will be $16.50/hour as a result of our Sweet $16 campaign.

Throughout this process, SEIU Healthcare members have advocated for Ontarians to Rise for Homecare. For this reason, when we heard the news that the homecare system is undergoing restructuring in an effort to provide more streamlined care to clients, we were naturally thrilled. This time of year brings about feelings of hope and faith, and it’s announcements like this that make us feel as though we are moving forward in homecare; more importantly, that we are recognizing that frontline workers and homecare recipients deserve better.

Change is happening.

We are glad our homecare members will be warm inside this winter, but we think of those who were out on the picket lines two years ago, and all workers who are standing up today for what they deserve – it is thanks to these individuals and their solidarity that we are able to make progress together.

Hospital with $50-million donation “works together as a team”

Staff at the newly renamed Michael Garron Hospital – formerly Toronto East General – joined many well-wishers in Ontario when they heard about the Garron family’s $50-million donation to the hospital and the touching reason behind it.

Michael Garron died from cancer at the age of 13. His fear was that he’d be forgotten.

His mother Berna had given birth to Michael at the hospital in 1962. With their generous donation, and the renaming of the hospital of his birth, Myron and Berna have permanently memorialized their son.

This gift shows just how much a positive experience in the healthcare system can stick with a family.

Juanita Barrett

Juanita Barrett has worked at Michael Garron Hospital for nearly 16 years. She said although this donation is incredibly large, she isn’t surprised the Garrons wanted to give.

“People donate because they feel the hospital made a difference in their life.”

She has worked in a variety of roles at the hospital and is currently Facility Services Lead – she audits housekeeping services, does infection control, and coordinates with maintenance staff, among other tasks that keep the hospital running in good shape for the patients.

Juanita is a union steward, and loves the hospital. She attributes a lot of the hospital’s successes to a general positive attitude among its more than 2,000 staff members.

“The hospital is very friendly, from the CEO down. Even when my own family members go there, they always talk about how friendly people are. We work together as a team.”

Housekeeping and management come together for hospital fair in Newmarket

Carrie Dawson has worked in housekeeping at Southlake Hospital in Newmarket for 30 years, so she knows the ins and outs of the workplace and the health and safety issues that linger there.

Together with her colleagues and with the cooperation of management and HR at the hospital, she helped throw a successful health and safety fair that was attended by staff and even the CEO.

“We came up with an idea because housekeeping seems to be largely involved with a lot of WSIB and sick plan claims. Management has been great – they listen to us, there is give and take.”

Southlake Hospital info fair

Carrie, centre right, with her colleagues and Manny Carvalho (background)

There were about 14 booths. Manny Carvalho, SEIU Healthcare Secretary-Treasurer, got his flu vaccine at one booth. There was mask fit testing for staff at another. HOOPP was there to answer questions about the pension plan.

Demonstrations included how to push stretchers and hampers and lift boxes safely.

Workplace violence is also an important issue that was addressed at the event. “Southlake enforces the no-tolerance violence policy, and I’m also on the workplace violence committee,” says Carrie.

Carrie lives in Newmarket with her husband and son, but she’s not far from her daughter either – she also works at Southlake as a nurse.

“I really like being a part of the union and trying to help other people. The chief steward stepped down and I have stuck to it ever since then.”

Believe in your rights

We have to believe in our rights to make them real. In human societies, change can seem slow. Recognition can be elusive. Expectations are raised. Hopes are easily dashed. But we have to keep working on it, taking the rights we have on paper and keep trying to apply them in practice.

Whether it’s our human rights, our rights at work, or our civil rights – these aren’t things anyone can afford to take for granted. Our rights are a work in progress.

Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day, marked by the United Nations on the anniversary of the 1948 signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year is also the 50th anniversary of two international covenants – on human rights and political and civil rights.

These documents set out “the civil, political, cultural, economic, and social rights that are the birth right of all human beings.”

It seems fitting that today also marks the day that the first special plane of Syrian refugees coming to Canada has arrived and hundreds of people start their new life here this week.

We know that international borders can make the difference between a chaotic, dangerous, and traumatizing life, and the chance for a calm, safe, prosperous existence. And human rights should apply in all states regardless of borders.

When it is impossible for people to achieve their basic human rights, it is natural for them to do whatever they can, including moving away from everything they know, to get access to resources we all need to live.

If those global citizens can do that, we can look at ourselves and examine our rights, how to fight for them, and how to always keep believing in them.

Violence Against Women: What you can do

Violence against women is an unfortunate reality in Canada. About half of all women will be physically or sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetime. That’s one of the reasons  people acknowledge National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, which takes place every year on December 6.

National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

December 6 is a day marred by tragedy. On December 6, 1989 a lone gunman walked into an engineering classroom at École Polytechnique in Montreal and murdered 14 female students and injured another 10.

We need to do more to reduce violence against women. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Raise awareness and show your support for victims of violence through Facebook and other social media
  • Fill our SEIU Healthcare’s workplace violence survey
  • Organize or attend a candlelight vigil or other commemorative event
  • Donate money to a local women’s shelter or another charity that works to prevent violence against women or aids victims of it
  • Write an article or a letter to the editor to your local newspaper about violence against women
  • Keep your eyes open for speakers or programs in your area that address violence against women
  • Engage others in conversations about violence against women and girls and let them know what they can do to make a difference
  • Wear a white ribbon on December 6th to show your support for victims of gender-based violence

For more information on issues relating to violence against women, you can learn more here at the Canadian government’s The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence webpage.

Wendy thriving in hospital administration while living with disability

December 3 is International Day of People with Disabilities, a day dedicated to promoting an understanding of people living with disabilities and encourage support for their dignity, rights, and well-being.

Life can be a lot more challenging if you have a physical, mental, visible, or invisible disability. But people living with disabilities find inspirational ways to succeed in their professional and personal lives.

Wendy from Thunder Bay

Take Wendy Norhaugen, an SEIU Healthcare member who works for St. Joseph’s Care Group in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She has been living with a disability for her entire life. She has a successful career in administration and in November 2015 was elected to SEIU Healthcare’s Executive Board as the Persons with Disability representative.

“I was born completely deaf in my left ear,” Wendy says.

“When I was young I grew up reading people’s lips without knowing it. If someone is talking to me behind me, I will turn around and look directly at them so I can hear what they are saying.”

She has found many employers have been very accommodating to her needs. But she knows that sometimes, individual managers may not be as understanding. One manager she worked with in the past would taunt and tease her. Sometimes he would quietly stand behind her for long periods of time until she would notice him. Other times he would lower his voice to make sure she couldn’t hear or understand him.

Frustrated with the manager’s bullying, she left her job and went back to school to earn a degree in medical administration. She scored high grades by sitting in front of the classroom so she could hear the teacher’s every word.

She feels her disability can be an issue but it doesn’t define her. Today she works in the administrative department at the hospital where she books appointments, handles discharges, manages the switchboard, and more.

“Lots of hurtful things have been thrown at me but it just makes me stronger,” she said. “But I do understand that in a lot of cases people with disabilities experience a lot of stress. They can have a hard time coping. Many suffer from depression.”

The good news is employers can help people living with disabilities succeed in the workplace. All an employer really needs to do is ask them what tools they need to succeed. At the hospital where she works Wendy feels they have done a lot to support her. She is a highly productive employee that hospital staff trust and rely on.

“I find that there is not enough knowledge. Many managers may not know how to deal with people who have disabilities. Education is a big part of it.”