Enough with 'hero' talk — pay us fairly, health-care workers say at rally

Hundreds of hospital workers rallied outside the Ontario Hospital Association’s head office in downtown Toronto Friday, with negotiations on a new provincial contract set to resume next week.

Bargaining for new provincial contract resumes next week

Tanya Rahim-Juttlah, a registered practical nurse at the Veteran’s Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital, says the care home for veterans is so shorthanded that some patients ask if anyone will be there to look after them. (Chris Glover/CBC)

After months of increased strain through the COVID-19 pandemic, registered practical nurse Tanya Rahim-Juttlah says she can't help but feel the pressure weighing on her.

"You're in your car crying after your shift, because it's hard to do your best for your patients and yourself, your kids and your family — because it's so much pressure on you," she said. "You just can't take a break."

That's why Rahim-Juttlah, who works at the Veteran's Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital — the largest veterans' care facility in Canada — was part of a hospital workers rally outside the Ontario Hospital Association's (OHA) head office in downtown Toronto Friday.

According to a news release, nearly 70,000 Ontario hospital workers who are part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and SEIU Healthcare are in the midst of negotiating a new provincial contract. Bargaining resumes next week.

While Premier Doug Ford and other provincial officials have frequently called front-line workers "heroes" during the pandemic, Rahim-Juttlah told CBC News that moniker means little without action to back it up.

"Don't call me a hero. Money talks, and you-know-what walks," she said with a laugh. "Ford needs to fix that."

Even before the pandemic started, health-care workers were underpaid and dealing with staffing shortages, she said.

"Now with the pandemic, it's even worse. You can't go on vacation, nothing is being approved, people can't look after their kids, can't look after their patients."

Unions decry Bill 124

Chief among complaints from the unions is the Conservative government's Bill 124, which capped public-sector wage increases at an average of one per cent annually for three years when it was passed in 2019. The legislation applies to teachers and nurses, but not local police or doctors. 

Union officials said in a news release the cap amounts to a cut in wages, as it comes in under the rate of inflation.

Health-care unions say Bill 124 restricts workers to a compensation increase of one per cent, which is under the rate of inflation. The provincial government says that is 'inaccurate.' (Chris Glover/CBC)

But Richard Mullin, spokesperson for the president of the Treasury Board, said in an email to CBC News that it is "inaccurate to suggest" that Bill 124 caps wages at one per cent annually, as "Ontario's public-sector employees will still be able to receive salary increases for seniority, performance, or increased qualifications."

"Bill 124 is designed to protect public sector jobs and vital front-line services, which are essential in our fight against COVID-19," he said. "We believe this is a fair, consistent, and time-limited approach that will enable us to protect front- line jobs and workers."

Mullin also lauded the health-care workers for the "critical role" they have played throughout the pandemic.

Workers feeling discouraged

Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the OHA, which is the bargaining agent for Ontario hospitals, told CBC News in a statement that the association and Ontario's hospitals are working on a new agreement that "complies with the current legislation, recognizes the enormous value of employees and keeps pace with our evolving healthcare environment. 

"We believe that the right place for these negotiations is at the bargaining table and will focus our efforts there," he said.

But Barb Jones, a scrub nurse in the operating room at Peterborough Regional Health Centre who attended Friday's protest, said hospital workers are feeling discouraged because they are "not being recognized for the job that we do."

Though pressures existed even before COVID-19, the stress has ratcheted up even higher, she said.

"I've been a nurse for 31 years, I've never been through anything like this before." 

With files from Chris Glover


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