Public health nurses strike cancels services in Windsor, Leamington and Essex
Ontario Nurses Association 'ready to go back to the table'
Public health workers in Windsor-Essex are officially on the picket lines.
The nurses voted "overwhelmingly" to strike before Thursday's midnight bargaining deadline, canceling a number of Windsor-Essex County Health Unit services at all three area offices.
- Healthy Schools program
- School immunization clinics
- School suspension program
- Healthy Families Home Visiting Program
- Breastfeeding clinics
- Sexual health and family planning clinics
- Nurse practitioner clinics
Theresa Marentette, CEO of WECHU, said they're "doing their best," and people can call if they have questions about what health care services they can access.
"It's been a really difficult road for these nurses at the public health unit," said Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses Association.
The nurses have been working without a contract since March 2018. About 86 nurses are now off the job after negotiations broke down between the employer — the Windsor Essex County Health Unit — and the association.
"Yesterday morning, there was hope the employer agreed to go back to the table." said McKenna, adding the WECHU held to its last offer at that meeting. Negotiations have been underway since September.
Marentette said there's a "reasonable offer" on the table and that they're using management staff to keep some programs running while the strike is underway. Funding for WECHU comes from both the municipality and the province.
"The compensation is consistent with others across the province in public health."
McKenna said money wasn't the only issue, although bargaining unit president Barb Deter said that was the focus.
"This is bigger than that," said McKenna.
Health units across the province have high workloads, said McKenna, a sentiment echoed by WECHU in a March 6 statement, saying there is a "growing demand for public health services." The statement said resources needed to be focused on expanding services and programs, rather than on wage increases.
"They were also looking for assistance and support with their workload and dealing with health issues occurring in the Windsor area," said McKenna, adding that many people aren't aware of what public health workers do.
On the list of what McKenna said public health nurses deal with are communicable diseases, sexual health and vulnerable families.
Kim Kirkpatrick has been a nurse with the health unit for 13 years and she said she's looking for a "fair" offer. She typically works in the sexual health department.
While it's unfortunate clients are suffering because of the strike, she said it was "empowering" to see the support on the picket lines.
"Anything better than what's being put on the table so far," Kirkpatrick said. "I feel that it's not actually money, it's respect that we're looking for."
'As if it was the last day'
McKenna said the environment at WECHU in the days leading up to the strike deadline may have made things worse.
"The last week, everyday leading up to going back to the table, the employer was asking them to turn over their cases to their managers before they left, as if it was the last day of work for them. The posturing and pressure in the workplace didn't help."
Deter said the staff are "feeling so disrespected," because WECHU wouldn't offer more than a one per cent initial wage increase.
"We don't want to be out there," said Deter. "We want to keep giving our residents the services that they need to keep them healthy."
"We're ready to go back to the table."