You know things have reached the boiling point when former and current staff contact you about the toxic work environment at their place of employment.
Such was the case this week when a former staffer at an Early Learning Centre in St. Thomas called to alert this corner about a festering situation at the centres.
As this individual patiently explained, at stake is the departure of former executive director Patricia Riddell-Laemers, the disbursement of top-up pay ear-marked for staff and allegations some individuals may have been wrongfully dismissed.
Matters apparently have sunk so low, some members of staff have hired a lawyer to delve into Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Education violations at the Early Learning Centre.
The vast majority of staff at the centres are females, very young and fearful of losing their jobs, according to the caller to City Scope.
A call to Elizabeth Sebestyen at St. Thomas-Elgin Ontario Works confirms they have initiated a third-party audit into the allocation of wage enhancement payments to childcare operators under their jurisdiction.
However, Sebestyen stressed the audit is merely routine due diligence and not in reaction to complaints from some former and current staff at several Early Learning Centres in St. Thomas and Aylmer who say they have not received the payments they are entitled to.
“We hear from people but it’s not so much complaints-based as much as due diligence we would have done anyway,” explained Sebestyen.
“We will do it with all of the providers and uncover any problems. If there are any problems we would write that up and expect them to correct any deficiencies and do it properly going forward.”
The wage enhancement – amounting to about two dollars per hour – is a method of equalizing the wages paid to staff at school-based centres and what the private centres pay. The money flows from the province to Ontario Works and then to the childcare operators.
Sebestyen added the audit is being undertaken to “make sure the money was distributed the way it should have been.”
So, if some employees at the centres have not received the wage enhancement, as alleged, who would be responsible for compensating those individuals?
“It would have to come from the operator,” advised Sebestyen. “They have already received the funding so they would have to correct that, whether the money is sitting there unspent or was used for something else. They have to correct that and make sure the employees get what they are entitled to.”
Sebestyen confirmed once the funds are allocated to the private centres, there is no real follow-up to ascertain whether it is being properly administered.
Sebestyen added there is no disciplinary action taken if discrepancies are reported, and that is unlikely to change.
“We would follow up to make sure the employees received the money the operator has received because we have already forwarded the funds. We would want to make sure there is some sort of confirmation process afterward to make sure it was distributed to the employees properly.
“That would be the follow-up. It wouldn’t be any disciplinary thing. We would report to the boards of directors at the centres if there are any problems and talk about any deficiencies and have a fairly quick turnaround to have them correct the deficiancies and provide confirmation to us.”
On the surface, it appears to be a loosey-goosey method of accountability, so we contacted Michelle Good, acting regional director at the Early Learning Centres about the wage enhancement payments and the labour-related concerns.
She declined comment and advised any information would have to come from Rebecca Kapogiannis, chairperson of the Early Learning Centre board of directors.
Kapogiannis would not comment on the third-party audit and likewise declined comment on the departure of Riddell-Laemers, who was apparently dismissed by the board via a letter.
Kapogiannis did offer this comment, “Good luck with your investigation.”
If you have had issues with the wage enhancement payments or any other labour-related matters at one of the Early Learning Centres, feel free to contact City Scope with your concerns.
As always, your anonymity will be assured.
NO EASY WAY OUT ON STUDENT SAFETY
Don Jackson stresses he has no children of his own, but he did this for the kids.
You see, dozens and dozens of kids pass his Sunset Drive home on their way to and from John Wise P.S. and Parkside Collegiate Institute.
There are no sidewalks along the roadway, a stretch of Sunset in which the speed limit is treated as a suggestion and not something to be adhered to.
And that is why he parked a mobile sign on his lawn this week urging motorists to ease up on the gas for the safety of those kids.
“It’s an important issue,” Jackson told us this week. “It’s about the kids. There are two schools and a brand new subdivision across the street. A few years’ back, one of the neighbour’s kids did get hit.”
Well the sign was only up a couple of days before the owner of the company was told by city bylaw enforcement officer Rob McDonald it would have to be removed from the property.
Seems it violates the city’s new sign bylaw and McDonald had received a complaint from, of all people, a member of council.
So says McDonald.
It would appear enforcing a bylaw that was never enforced in the past now takes precedent over the safety of kids trekking to school, according to this member of council.
A gutsy call in an election year.
Is this safety message really in violation of the city bylaw?
“It may be, I don’t know the specifics of that,” admitted city manager Wendell Graves. “I’m sure it would be covered by the sign bylaw in one form or another. I know the bylaw guys are out looking at all those signs.”
Did the complaint really originate with a member of council?
“In terms of council raising an issue, I have not heard anything about that,” advised Graves.
This wouldn’t be a staff issue would it? Someone a little peeved about the subtle jab at the ongoing call for sidewalks in an area in which they are certainly warranted.
Jackson insisted the sign really only had a simple message.
“We’re asking people to slow down.”
He continued, “In the winter it’s really bad because you’ve got snow banks and everybody has their garbage out and you watch the kids walking on the road trying to get by all this stuff and traffic is flying by.
“To me it is common sense. When they put in John Wise school, someone on council or an engineer or planner would have said maybe for safety sake, it would be a good idea to put in a sidewalk for these kids to get to school.”
Jackson has contacted police in the past and they have come out on occasion and ticketed a myriad of lead-footed motorists. But in the past ten years the only change is an increase in speeding motorists and many more students at risk.
Did a member of council really complain about this sign? If so, will they step forward and present their case?
Or as Jackson suggests, is someone taking the easy out on this one?
TRANSIT CONTRACT EXTENDED
It took a freedom of information request on our part to confirm the city has worked out an attractive two-year contract extension with Voyageur for the provision of transit services in St. Thomas.
The deal was voted upon last month in camera with no details of the agreement released in the open session. The extension was first approached Nov. 20 of last year at a reference committee meeting, with topics under discussion touching on fares, routes and possible service level improvements.
Voyageur has been the transit operator for the past six years, providing about 1.4 million rides with few issues reported, according to a Feb. 5 report from director of environmental services Justin Lawrence to council.
The elephant in the room is Bill 148, with the minimum wage increase impacting school busing, patient transport and transit systems across the province.
In his report, Lawrence notes other transit providers, including London Transit, have increased their contracts by 10 per cent this year to account for the impact of the wage increase.
Voyageur was proposing a 10 per cent increase in the first year of the transit contract to cover off the wage increase.
However, Voyageur has now agreed to limit their contract increase to the consumer price index plus 4 per cent this year and the CPI plus 2 per cent for 2019, with that money flowing through to pay driver’s wages.
With the two-year extension out of the way, the city will undertake a route and service review prior to tendering a new five-year contract through 2024.
At that November reference committee meeting, Coun. Steve Wookey suggested scrapping the bus system entirely and going to on-demand transit using taxi and Uber-type operations.
Remember the transit budget – along with police and fire – was one area ratepayers would like to see pared back, according to the online budget survey conducted last year by the city.
OUT TO PASTURE
No disrespect here, even Jeff Driedger himself said it was O.K. to draw the analogy.
You see, after 34 years of exemplary service with St. Thomas Police, Driedger retired this past week to enjoy life on his beloved Sparta-area farm.
The police service has lost a good one.
The cattle will enjoy his company all the more.
The deputy chief was a class act and there were a lot of well-wishers on hand Wednesday for the send off.
A lot of laughter too.
It was an opportunity, as well, to tour the new police headquarters in the company of Chief Chris Herridge.
It is a carefully designed, state-of-the-art, functional building with plenty of room for expansion. A far cry from life in their former digs.
Having said that, it is not a Taj Mahal, and it did not cost $30 million as some would have you believe.
Hard to imagine elections were fought over what has become a St. Thomas showcase.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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