Montreal

Their jobs are essential, but protesting workers in Montreal say wages, treatment suggest otherwise

Health-care workers, social workers, teachers and others gathered in Jarry Park Sunday afternoon to demand pay and treatment that better reflects the heavy burden they have carried as essential workers during the pandemic.

Workers from range of sectors join to demonstrate in Jarry Park

Essential workers are frequently acknowledged at government news conferences, says teacher and demonstration organizer Alex Pelchat, but that's where things end. 'Our salaries are not better, our work conditions are not better.' (Josh Grant/CBC)

Health-care workers, social workers, teachers and others gathered in Jarry Park Sunday afternoon to demand pay and treatment that better reflects the heavy burden they have carried as essential workers during the pandemic.

The demonstrators say the impact of their efforts over the last year on their mental and physical health has been significant. And they say the government's gratitude, though frequently declared, has not been backed up.

"We get congratulations at the weekly or daily press conferences but there's never any measures to protect us," said Alex Pelchat, a Grade 5 teacher and member of the Progressive Education Workers Collective who helped organize the demonstration.

"Our salaries are not better, our work conditions are not better." 

Many essential workers have been on the front lines of the pandemic since it began. 

A recent study in Toronto — not yet peer-reviewed — found that per-capita COVID-19 infection rates were three times higher in neighbourhoods with the highest concentration of essential workers than in the neighbourhoods with the lowest concentration.

Mental health support

Some of the workers' demands, such as better pay and better mental health support, are universal. 

"We do the job that we do because we love it, because we love the people that we work with," said Alesse Nesbitt, a social worker at Dans La Rue, an organization that helps youth experiencing homelessness. 

"So I think sometimes we tend to go above and beyond and put a lot of pressure on ourselves but there's not much that's there to help us out and make sure that we're also being taken care of."

Aurélie McBrearty, who will finish nursing school in May and works weekends in a Montreal hospital, says the system wasn't equipped to deal with the relentless pressure the pandemic puts on staff. She said she has already seen "a lot" of colleagues leave.

"You see someone die and then you just have to move to another room," McBrearty said. "That's just so hard and dehumanizing for us."

Health-care workers, social workers, teachers and others have been on the frontlines of the pandemic since it began. (Josh Grant/CBC)

Other demands are unique to specific jobs or sectors, but generally arise from the same root concerns: inadequate funding and inadequate resources. Pelchat, the teacher, said air quality in schools is of greater concern to many because of the pandemic.

"I don't feel safe at all, and my co-workers who have pregnant partners, who have older parents living with them are very worried about bringing COVID home," he said.

The air quality issue is not new, Pelchat noted, but is "a 20-year-old problem, if not a 30-year-old problem."

In early February, teachers in Quebec's anglophone and francophone school boards separately voted for five-day strike mandates, with their unions — the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers and the Centrale des syndicats du Québec — saying the provincial government isn't providing teachers enough support to do their jobs under strained conditions made worse by the pandemic. 

CBC reached out to Quebec's Ministries of Health and Education for comment but they had not replied as of Sunday evening.

With files from Matt D'Amours and Josh Grant

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