British Columbia

Peer support workers on front lines of overdose crisis in Vancouver set to join union

Dozens of peer support workers, with experiences similar to those fighting addiction, are about to be unionized in a move their union says formally recognizes the role they play in saving lives.

Workers, with similar experiences to those they help, voted 100% in favour of joining CUPE Local 1004

Main Street in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dozens of peer support workers, with experiences similar to those fighting addiction, are about to be unionized in a move their union says formally recognizes the role they play in saving lives.

The workers voted 100 per cent in favour of joining CUPE Local 1004 last March and the Labour Relations Board of British Columbia shared the ballot results this week, the union said.

Certification was delayed by several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a challenge to certification filed by the employer, PHS Community Services Society, the union said.

"This about respect and recognition," Don Cumberland, who has worked at the Washington Needle Depot on East Hastings Street for almost 20 years, said in a statement.

"I hope this means that the people doing the hard work on the ground saving lives every day will finally get the credit they deserve."

Front lines of overdose crisis

More than 6,500 people have died from overdoses since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said last month.

Andrew Ledger, president of CUPE Local 1004, said that as the number of deaths has climbed due to a poisoned drug supply, peer workers have played a central role in improving access to treatment and it's important that their work be recognized.

"Oftentimes, the best people to be able to break down barriers to access are members of the community themselves," Ledger said.

"Peers have become a central figure in many, many health-care delivery settings like injection sites and other community care settings."

The labour relations board is expected to issue its official certification this week, affecting about 40 workers, including those at Insite, the Washington Needle Depot and overdose prevention sites in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

People gather at a rally in support of a safe supply of drugs in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Micheal Vonn, CEO of PHS Community Services Society, said the organization is in collective bargaining, which limits what it can say.

"We're excited about the evolution and we're determined to make this a good experience for the peers," she said.

Similar experiences to those they serve

Peer workers at overdose prevention sites, needle depots and other harm reduction services are employees with experiences similar to those they serve.

Some of their positions were developed as a "vocational therapeutic program," and the society initially challenged the certification on the basis that their work didn't satisfy traditional employment definitions.

The workers may range from volunteers and occasional stipend workers to those working more stable and regular hours.

The unionization drive initially sparked some concern that it might mean the end of informal work opportunities that can be an important bridge toward permanent employment for workers who may not yet be capable of holding down a regular job. 

Ledger said that concern was answered by only including the more permanent and stable work positions in the union drive.

Some peer workers have worked for decades without benefits like paid vacation or the ability to collectively negotiate higher wages, he said.

Before joining the union's leadership, Ledger worked alongside peer workers as a mental health worker for PHS on the Downtown Eastside in 2009.

"I'm very grateful to see those workers are now being acknowledged and will receive the same benefits I did," he said.

Unionizing means the workers will have access to benefits, their seniority will be established and other rights their co-workers already receive will be recognized, he said.

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