Local personal support workers on strike

BARRY’S BAY – Personal support workers (PSWs) from Barry’s Bay, Palmer Rapids and beyond are part of the province wide strike against Red Cross Care Partners.
As of December 17, they were taking part in demonstrations in Pembroke at the Red Cross property on Pembroke Street East.
Sharleen Stewart is the president of SEIU Healthcare, which represents more than 55,000 healthcare and community service workers across Ontario.
She told the Gazette via telephone on December 16 that the PSWs have been without a contract since April 2013. 
“We began negotiating prior to April hoping to reach an agreement before the expiry of the contract but for eight months, Red Cross and Red Cross Care Partners continue to say that workers would have to take more zeros,” she said. “Obviously that was not acceptable.”
They went to mediation and that resulted in a tentative agreement, which was taken to the PSWs for input. However, the majority rejected the agreement on November 23 because it included only minor increases, including an 11 cent an hour pay increase.
According to a SEIU media release, in the last two years, PSW earnings have been reduced by about seven per cent as a result of a wage freeze combined with inflation and a massive increase in the price of gas. 
Top earning PSWs are making $15.02 an hour with the organization, Stewart said. 
“So 11 cents obviously wasn’t going to do it,” she said. 
The personal support workers use their own vehicles, which they use to travel from client to client. 
“They are putting gas in from their own pocket and they are not getting adequate compensation for that or the maintenance of their own vehicle,” she explained. “That’s no lie. We have had some PSWs who, the schools would call them and say their kids were not dressed adequately. They had to find the gas for their car to do their job and just couldn’t afford to get jackets that paycheque.”
Some of them cannot afford to put winter tires on their vehicles, Stewart noted.
A media release issued by the SEIU states last year, the CEO of the Red Cross Society was given a nine per cent pay increase, bringing his annual salary to $297,000. 
“Those women do not have the opportunity to go to arbitration like other healthcare workers do. So they were unable to bargain, mediation did not result in a successful agreement and they had no choice but to go out on strike,” Stewart explained, adding that the SEIU has yet to hear back from the Red Cross since the offer was rejected on November 23.  
PSWs generally start their day at 5:00 a.m. in the morning to help their clients. The majority of clients are seniors. 
“The senior population is increasing rapidly,” she said. “Seniors want to stay at home in their own environment as long as they can. So that service is very valued by the seniors that they can have someone come in.”
PSWs help with some mobility work to those with accessibility issues and sometimes help with other duties around the home, too. 
“But we are seeing their work and the demands for their services increase,” she said. “The hospitals and long term care facilities as well as community services such as mental health and handicapped services are offloading a lot more services into the community and these are the people, the personal support workers who are picking up the load.”
Read more in the December 18, 2013 issue of The Valley Gazette.