Nova Scotia

Restorative justice caseworkers say government funding is 'exploitative'

Caseworkers at a Nova Scotia organization who carry out the province's restorative justice program say they're not being paid fairly, and are prepared to strike if conditions don't improve.

Caseworkers say they do similar work to probation officers, and want to be paid like them

Caseworkers at the Community Justice Society are paid the same, regardless of how long they've worked there. (Submitted by Shila LeBlanc)

Caseworkers at a Nova Scotia organization who carry out the province's restorative justice program say they're not being paid fairly, and are prepared to strike if conditions don't improve.

The Community Justice Society is an independent non-profit group contracted by the province. Funding for employee pay and benefits comes from the Department of Justice. 

"Our funding is exploitative," said caseworker Shila LeBlanc, who has worked for the society for the past two years.

LeBlanc said caseworkers are paid about $38,000 annually, "so not anywhere close to a living wage in Nova Scotia."

Caseworkers coordinate restorative circles with people who have caused harm, victims and other affected parties, and determine ways to make amends.

LeBlanc said the work is meaningful and challenging, but said that probation officers are paid annually, on average, about $66,000.

"Knowing what other employees are making who do similar work, it does take a toll over time," said LeBlanc.

She said some of her colleagues work part-time jobs in order to sustain themselves financially.

Employee turnover is about 100 per cent, in part because an employee with years of experience is paid the same as a new caseworker, said LeBlanc.

Gender parity concerns

In 2016, the restorative justice program expanded to include adults, which LeBlanc said led to a 149 per cent increase in caseloads without any increase in funding, staffing and resources. 

"It's time for this situation, I think, to become a bit more equitable in terms of ... the way we are supporting the court system," said LeBlanc.

LeBlanc said an analysis by CUPE, the parent union representing employees at the Community Justice Society, showed that the caseworker role is 90 per cent comparable to that of probation officers for qualifications, responsibilities and education.

However, while community justice caseworkers are predominantly female, probation officers are overwhelmingly male, so there are concerns about gender parity, said LeBlanc.

'Talks have fallen apart'

Govind Rao, the national representative for CUPE, who works with the employees at the Community Justice Society to negotiate their contract, said they're asking the government to change the formula to increase the pay of caseworkers to 90 per cent of probation officers.

He said when the union was at the bargaining table this week, "There wasn't an offer even tabled to us ... that we could look at. Talks have fallen apart."

The union is waiting for the provincial conciliator to file a report. Two weeks after that happens, they'll be in a legal strike position.

Rao said the union members are ready to strike to bring about changes to the pay structure, and said a strike vote was unanimous amongst workers.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said this is a labour matter between the employer and the union, and that they hope for a resolution.

The Community Justice Society said they're committed to keeping their discussions at the bargaining table.

"We have talented, experienced and skilled staff, and we value what they do. We're optimistic we'll come to an agreement and we're bargaining in good faith," said executive director Rebekah Powell.

Resolution up to government

Rao said it's up to the government to address the issues with compensation by changing the funding formula. 

"The government is the only party that can solve the crisis in recruitment and retention," he said. "For such an important program, this really isn't the way to run restorative justice in Nova Scotia."

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