They deal with some of the most vulnerable members of the community, but staff at the Elgin branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association say they are struggling with their own unbearable stress.
And now, members of OPSEU Local 133 are breaking the silence.
Bolstered by CMHA members from Oxford, about two dozen staff took a stand outside the Centre Street office where they claim to be working in an environment of fear, intimidation and anxiety.
According to Carol Warner, OPSEU staff representative, St. Thomas employees are consistently targeted and penalized by upper management for speaking up about health, safety and other workplace concerns.
“It’s hideous, it’s a long-standing issue,” notes Warner. “I would say it’s a systemic issue. We have grievances in the docket that are, at a minimum, four or five years old. And the grievance program has flaws as well.
“If one decides to, they can influence how quickly or how slowly the grievance process unfolds.”
“We’ve gone through four lead stewards in this unit,” adds Local 133 president Tischa Forster. “They end up either leaving or there’s a termination and payout and a gag order.
“Some of the grievances have been sitting for up to six years. They are about bullying, harassment and toxic workplace and they’ve just been ignored.”
While not unique to the Elgin branch, Warner stresses the unresolved grievances are a warning flag in St. Thomas.
“I think lots of workplaces have experienced harassment and bullying and a toxic work environment but this one is unique in terms of how long it has been this way. And how unwilling the management – from the executive director (Heather Debruyn) to the board of directors – have been to address the problem.
“The executive director of Oxford chose to deal with matters head on,” Warner points out. “And resolved the problems and they have moved forward.
“In Elgin, it’s much more engrained and ongoing . . . And the executive director is part of that problem.”
Debruyn did not return calls for comment.
“I like to see a leader lead an organization, not a boss,” explains Forster. “If you hire people at the top as managers who have a very bullying style of management, it goes all the way down and it leads to toxicity and poor health of the workers. And they are stressed all the time. And you’re stressed just to do the job.
“It’s hard to bring your best (to work) if you’re already suffering from stresses related to your workplace.”
Warner says any attempts at ongoing communication with management regarding outstanding grievance are going nowhere.
“Often they’re not even responded to in terms of our grievance procedure. You bring the matter forward, you meet and you attempt to address it in the time frame.
“This employer has a tendency not to come to the meetings, not to meet the time frames, so you just keep pushing the grievance through the process up to the arbitration stage. And, even then, the employer representatives get dragged kicking and screaming to attempt to solve a problem that’s four or five years old.
“What’s become the common resolution to these problems is show up at the arbitration with your cheque book,” Warner continues. “What kind of money would it take to make this particular matter go away.
Forster adds, “We’re calling on the employer to work with the union to address these serious issues. We need to have a healthy workplace. Our workers’ mental health matters too, or we’re no good to help anybody.
“They are just blatantly ignoring the language in the contracts for grievance process and how to resolve. The few health and safety issues that were big here, we did have addressed, we called in the ministry of labour and there were some orders placed.”
OPSEU head Smokey Thomas attended Wednesday’s information picket to lend support to the St. Thomas employees.
“Having worked in the mental health sector my entire professional career, I can attest to the fact that frontline workers have enough obstacles, without unnecessary ones imposed by management,” Thomas noted in a media release.
All three are seeking an independent external investigation.
“It’s a difficult environment to try and achieve something without an independent third party assisting and that’s what we’re calling for,” Warner explains.
“We need them to come in and do an assessment of the workplace, make some recommendations and follow through with how both parties implement those recommendations to turn this into a healthier workplace.”
Forster adds, “I would like to put a call out to the South West LHIN (Local Health Integration Network), because they fund these places. Because we’re getting nowhere.
“These workers are ending their silence, we’ve had enough. We need to have this addressed so we can come to work healthy and do what we love doing and that’s helping our clients.”
Thomas stresses, “The board of directors and the executive director Heather Debruyn must show their commitment to mental health by agreeing to bring in a neutral third-party investigator.”
Warner says it was necessary to hold the information picket outside the St. Thomas office “To raise awareness and send a message to the executive director and her management team and their board of directors because they are very invisible and inaccessible.”
The board of directors of the Elgin branch of the CMHA is composed of president Ian Raven (on a temporary leave of absence), acting president John Montgomery, treasurer Ann Marie Perry, Alex Connoy, Jim Ferrie, Bill Lee and Arnold Walker.
SURVEY SAYS . . .
He was gunning for 500 respondents, however Justin Lawrence – the city’s director of environmental services – will have to make do with 176.
That’s the number of individuals who responded to the city’s online budget survey, which offered ratepayers an opportunity to record their input into 2018 budget deliberations for council’s consideration.
The top three areas where respondents wished to see a boost in tax funding next year were roads/bridges, winter maintenance and downtown community improvement.
Most enlightening were the three services respondents would like to see funding decreased: fire, police and transit.
Let’s glean some of the comments for each department, starting with the fire service.
“A study could be conducted on the use of overtime and callbacks by fire services personnel,” writes one individual. “An investigation on what constitutes a call for service and logged entries for calls such as getting fuel as a call for service or routine vehicle maintenance. Fire services are a critical service but I believe we are not paying close enough attention to where the money is going to run the fire dept.”
Another writes, “Excessive Fire Services are the same as the police. St. Thomas is not a big city and does not need all the fireman we have now. Their pay and benefits are unsustainable and the need to cut them back needs to begin now! There are very, very few fire calls and they could be covered by part-time or volunteer firemen. To be reasonable, to justify the number of firemen employed in such a small community, this is just excessive, unnecessary spending.”
In a similar vein, how about “Fire services consume nearly 20% of the operating budget. I do not agree with retention bonuses (seriously, who leave a $125,000/year job?? Why do they have to use expensive equipment to go get coffee. In the Canadian Army, it is an offense to use tax payer funded equipment to get lunch or a coffee. There is a high level of entitlement with the fire service, at the expense of sidewalks and capital projects. We’re a city of 36,000 yet we spend $8,400,000.00 on fire services. This is a self-licking ice cream cone.”
On the flip side, one participant noted: “Fire should respond to all medical emergencies if they can get there first. Increase fire prevention enforcement is needed for all the old multiresidential properties.”
Another writes,“The fire department was quick to respond to our calls. This is a well run organization.”
And, “No change. Level of service is appropriate.”
Not much in the way of positive feedback, to be honest.
Looking at the St. Thomas Police Service, again an abundance of negative responses.
“I believe we have more officers and Management than a city the size of St.Thomas requires; and so a reduction is in order.”
Another response: “Outrageous amount. Reduce those salaries. This needs to be stopped as its completely out of line with rest of society.”
In a similar vein, “Police costs have skyrocketed in the past 17 years with overall crime rates declining. The persistent budgetary increases, largely as a result of ballooning salary costs, are not sustainable. Core dollars must be focused on front-line policing and specialized investigative services. Community relations and fixed capital costs all require re-evaluation.”
On the positive side: “Increasing mental health programs or officers dealing with mental health issues in our community. They are at crisis point and need an increase in staff to deal with this issue.”
“Love having a city police service. I have lived many places with RCMP and OPP and I am extremely grateful for a quality local service!”
And a very valid observation here: “They don’t get the credit they deserve for all they are expected to do and know in seconds on scene.”
Feedback from those involved directly with police and fire services is always welcome.
And finally over to transit.
Let’s start with, “More routes need to be added, the service needs to
start earlier and run later. To offset costs perhaps run on a 45 minute cycle.”
In a similar vein: “It’s really sad when someone who doesn’t drive, and can’t afford a taxi can’t go to an evening movie after work because the buses stop before the movie ends. Our transit system needs to lengthen the hours of operation.”
Here’s an interesting proposal. “Get rid of public transit. Subsidize cab companies. Flat fee for anywhere in St. Thomas.”
And finally, a heartfelt plea for more funding. “Our Public Transportation is shamefully underfunded and this causes serious problems for those of us who rely on it in order to find or maintain employment, get ourselves and/or our children to appointments, daycare, extra-curricular programs, etc., and participate in the social and economic functioning of our city. Please, please take these needs more seriously.”
Will council and staff take these ratepayer comments into consideration when the 2018 budget deliberations begin?
HAVE YOUR SAY
With regard to demolition of the Sutherland Press building – still slated to begin the week of Oct. 16 – Bill McCormick posts on Facebook: “I remember years ago Mayor Barwick was heavily criticised for attempting to have this nuisance demolished. It will be interesting to see how many of his very vocal detractors will now come forward and say, ‘Oops, sorry Cliff. You were right.'”
Tony Bendel has an interesting observation on the new police headquarters. “I asked a council member the other day what the final numbers were for the new police station because they said it was going to be just under 13 million …… The reply I got was they don’t know what the final number is because the building project is still not complete. Really? I would be so very interested in knowing the final and actual cost.”
And dealing with the Canada geese problem in city parks prompted this note from Judy MacDonald.
“Several years ago my husband and I met a gentleman who raised swans in Dorchester. They were ‘the queen’s swans.’ He sold some to golf courses because if you have any in residence, geese will avoid them as they are very territorial. I keep thinking of our parks and now Lake Margaret and wonder if they were ever considered as a solution.”