Last October, about two dozen staff at the Elgin branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association stood outside the Centre Street office where they claimed to be working in an environment of fear, intimidation and anxiety.
At that time, OPSEU staff representative Carol Warner asserted 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,” noted 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.”
That information picket by members of OPSEU Local 133 and the allegations of workplace harassment resulted in the appointment of a third-party investigator by the Southwest Local Health Integration Network (SW LHIN) to report on CMHA Elgin’s compliance with its contractual agreement to the LHIN.
Well, the report from healthcare consultant Ron McRae was recently released and it points to numerous issues of poor governance and a lack of oversight which has prompted the SW LHIN to take the unique step of appointing a supervisor for the St. Thomas/Elgin operation.
It is too early in the process to know who the supervisor will report to and their exact duties at CMHA Elgin, advised Rain Loftus, OPSEU regional representative, in a conversation this past week.
“We’re not entirely certain how that would work. I am guessing it would be the LHIN (they would report to) because that’s who the agency reports to anyway as the funder,” suggested Loftus.
“That’s what we anticipate. We look forward to working with that person, whatever the process is going to be. We welcome that. Certainly we will work with them to improve the environment there.”
As to the length of time to be spent in St. Thomas, Loftus added he was unsure of the tenure, noting “It’s pretty fresh, we don’t have the details.”
In a statement from SW LHIN acting board chairman Andrew Chunilall, he indicated in order to support a health system that prioritizes quality patient care, strong governance and leadership, as well as healthy workplace environments, “the South West LHIN Board of Directors has decided to give written notice that the LHIN intends to appoint a health service provider supervisor for CMHA Elgin.
“This decision is the result of a final report, delivered by an appointed investigator, identifying a number of concerns regarding governance, management, operations, and the overall health of the workplace environment, and providing a number of recommendations.”
In the statement, Chunilall stressed “any changes made within the organization will have no impact on clients and service delivery. We look forward to continuing to work closely with CMHA Elgin and our other partners to support a health system that prioritizes patient care, strengthens quality of care across our region and reinforces the need for healthy workplace environments.”
The SW LHIN did not wish to comment further, but did advise its “intention to appoint a health service provider supervisor on or after a date which is 14 days from the date the Minister (of Health and Long-Term Care) and the governing body of CMHA Elgin receive notice.”
CMHA Elgin, likewise, did not make anyone available for an interview, and instead issued a release attributed to Jesse Lake, Director – Human Resources, Data, and Communications.
“CMHA Elgin welcomes the recommendations in the report as a planning tool to help us think about improvements we can make at the branch to better support our staff and continue to meet the needs of the community.”
The statement continued, “Prior to the report’s publication, we had already independently begun taking steps to enhance governance, management, and operation structures. We will continue to work with the LHIN to address the report’s recommendations.
“As the wellbeing of our clients is always our primary concern, we are encouraged that the LHIN in its motion has stated that there will be no impact to clients or service delivery.”
McRae’s report included a staff assessment of executive director Heather Debruyn’s ability to head CMHA Elgin in an effective manner. On a scale of one to five, her average score was 1.8.
A “cause for concern,” concluded McRae.
Loftus stressed he certainly didn’t want to get into talking about individuals.
However, he did point out “There are people who are in charge and there were some alarming details that came out. And certainly some concerning ones from our perspective. That’s why we welcomed a third party to come in and look at things and hopefully change things for the better and we are looking forward to working with them.”
McRae also raised concerns about the structure of the CMHA Elgin board of directors, noting two of the four directors are friends of Debruyn, possibly leading to “a conflict of interest.”
He recommended increasing the board structure to six or seven individuals.
Loftus concurs with that recommendation, with the provision “As long as they are there to do the work they are supposed to. And, that’s always an issue. A lot of times boards are just appointments . . . I don’t want to say there’s nepotism or anything like that. I’m not suggesting that. But, you have people on board who are familiar with some of the power structure. You hope people put on the board are there to do the work.”
Loftus said, overall, OPSEU accepts McRae’s recommendations and his members will work with the supervisor to improve working conditions which prompted last fall’s picket.
“Absolutely, we certainly have had some concerns which gave rise to what is happening,” said Loftus. “They welcome having another set of eyes . . . a body whose sole purpose, it sounds like, is to implement change.
“Any time you have the president of the union (Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas) show up on your door step because of working conditions and concerns, I would say it’s reached the highest level at that point. It was very concerning that it had reached that point.
“If the establishment wasn’t working the way it was, you’re always going to welcome another party or an ability to have a recess or a step back and look at things.”
Loftus indicated he was not aware of a particular deadline or timeframe as part of the supervisor’s mandate.
“I welcome sooner rather than later. We are prepared to work through whatever it is they are going to look at.”
He did stress the need for progress updates from the supervisor.
“I can’t imagine you would appoint somebody and not have the ability to check or have those types of conversations. That’s what I understand the purpose is. Ultimately the reports will go back to the funder (SW LHIN) and they want to be satisfied the work is being done and things have been cleaned up and heading in the right direction.
“Typically there is minimal contact between the LHIN and labour. I don’t know whether that relationship stays the same and that’s what the role of this person is going to be. Although I suspect that is it. They certainly haven’t reached out to us to have preliminary discussions.”
Loftus stressed the OPSEU members are going into the process with open eyes.
“We’re willing to cooperate and ultimately we want to have things clear for the workers and the people they service. From the labour perspective, a good environment makes happy workers and puts them out into the community to do their work and service their clients.
“If you are fighting battles internally and fearful of things in your own workplace, it doesn’t make for productive work.”
CLOSING THE (WAGE) GAP AT CLOSING THE GAP
And, on another labour front, there is some vigorous finger-pointing going on between OPSEU and the management of Closing the Gap in St. Thomas, a healthcare provider offering services in homes, schools, workplaces, long-term care homes, hospitals, and clinics across Ontario.
According to their website, they are the largest interdisciplinary service provider in Ontario.
However, OPSEU president Smokey Thomas is calling on Closing the Gap CEO Connie Clerici “to show basic fairness and decency to the people who provide important health care in St. Thomas.”
OPSEU Local 152 represents 22 health care professionals at Closing the Gap in St. Thomas. Their contract expired on March 31 of last year and conciliation is scheduled for next Wednesday (May 2) in London.
Closing the Gap president Leighton McDonald said don’t blame management for the slow progress.
“I think the delay has been on OPSEU’s side,” asserted McDonald during a phone call Friday.
At stake is money and respect, according to Thomas in a media release this week.
“This is one of the most unfair situations I’ve ever heard of. And at the end of the day, it’s the people of St. Thomas who are paying the price because the health care professionals they depend on are overworked and underpaid.
“It’s time this community, and the health professionals who provide care in this community, were treated with fairness and respect,” continued Thomas.
OPSEU staff representative Lynne Easter confirmed Closing the Gap earned, on average, $165 per client visit while only paying their employees $46 to $48 per visit.
The employees include a dietitian, a social worker, a speech and language pathologist, physiotherapists and occupational therapists.
Up until 2004 or 2005, the services were provided by the South West Community Care Access Centre in St. Thomas.
The referrals still come from the CCAC, but the services are provided by Closing the Gap (also known as Rehab Express), advised Easter.
She added they represent workers at a Closing the Gap in Owen Sound who are going after their first collective agreement and they are paid $98 per visit, on average.
However, cautioned Easter, the Owen Sound employees don’t have a pension plan and their travel allowance is included in that per visit rate.
The St. Thomas staff have “a pretty good benefit package,” continued Easter, “and a really good pension.”
Comparing apples to apples, continued Easter, the St. Thomas employees are earning about 30 per cent less in salary and benefits.
McDonald takes issue with the claim St. Thomas workers are not fairly compensated or respected.
“We saw the comment that was sent out by Mr. Thomas and obviously we don’t agree,” advised McDonald.
He pointed out the labour situation in St. Thomas is somewhat unique in that “the majority of our workforce is not unionized.”
More than wages are at stake, according to Easter.
“They have a collective agreement that has overtime provisions in it, however the employer doesn’t really track it and doesn’t really pay them for all of their non-visit time. Sometimes they travel up to 40 minutes to travel to their appointment.
“They use their own computers, their own cell phones.”
She stressed the $48 average is per visit not per hour.
“We figured it out to an hour and forty-five minutes, that’s the average. It looks like a pretty good hourly rate, but it’s closer to two hours per visit.”
Talks broke off in February, at which time a strike vote was taken “and we got a 100 per cent strike vote,” said Easter.
Two conciliation dates are scheduled, the second being May 15, and if there is no resolution at that time, Easter indicated “we would apply for a no board and then they are 17 days away from a strike.”
Closing the Gap is the lone service provider in St. Thomas and Elgin.
McDonald stressed, “We have a good relationship with our staff and we’re hoping to come to some agreement next week.”
However Thomas warned, “This is yet another example of how privatization puts profits before people and leaves accountability in the dust. It’s time for Closing the Gap to start treating all of its health professionals, and all of the people who depend on them, with transparency and decency.”
TAKE A RUN AT IT
Are you interested in having a greater say in the governance of St. Thomas beyond just voting in the Oct. 22nd municipal election?
Well, the nomination process opens May 1 and runs through to 2 p.m. on July 27. That’s your window of opportunity to declare your intention to run for mayor, city councillor or school board trustee.
So you know, there will be at least two openings to fill on city council with the addition of one member and a vacancy the result of the mayoral race which, at this point, pits Heather Jackson against Steve Wookey.
Nominations must be submitted in person or by an agent, and must be accompanied with the filing fee of $200 if running for mayor or $100 if seeking the office of councillor or trustee. Nominations for an office on council must be endorsed by at least 25 eligible voters.
Nomination forms and election information is available on the city’s website at http://www.stthomas.ca.
On a related noted, if you are contemplating running for a position on council, an information session is to be held where you can acquaint yourself with how the municipal body operates, what time commitment is required, and the workings of the electoral process.
The meeting is this Thursday, May 3, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Carnegie Room at St. Thomas Public Library.
For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 519-631-1680 ext. 0.
HERE’S YOUR LINEUP
Over on the provincial side, here’s the players so far in Elgin-Middlesex-London for the June 7 vote.
Incumbent PC MPP Jeff Yurek will be challenged by Liberal nominee Carlie Forsythe, a Central Elgin Collegiate Institute and Fanshawe College grad.
For the NDP, Amanda Stratton will carry the banner. The London PR consultant was unsuccessful in her bid to get the nod in London-North Centre.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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