SEIU-West Health Care Still Awaiting a Contract

·11 min read

SEIU-West members staged an hour long picket on Thursday October 29, at the corner of Highway 2 and 1st Street North in Wakaw outside of the Wakaw’s Lakeview Pioneer Lodge to call attention to the continued lack of action on the part of Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO) and for them to come back to the table with a fair deal for health care workers. In August and September before the provincial election was called, similar demonstrations were held in a variety of locations in the province.

SEIU-West members have been without a ratified contract since March 31, 2017 and rejected an offer of a zero per cent retroactive pay raise for 2018 and 2019. At a demonstration in Moose Jaw on September 2, Neil Colmin, SEIU-West vice-president said that while the government calls healthcare workers essential “at the bargaining table, it seems like they are sacrificial.” Colmin went on to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the concerns of union members.

Healthcare workers in Wakaw carried placards with messages “Be Fair to Those Who Care” and “End Understaffing Fair Wages Now!” In a press release from SEIU-West issued October 29, they state, “If the campaign promise laid out by Premier Scott Moe are genuine, his government will invest in our public health care system to make it strong in all of our communities.” SEIU-West President Barbara Cape went on to say in the release, “Our members will no longer tolerate the systemic underfunding which is cause from chronic understaffing, increased wait times for services and the dismissive attitude of those who are accountable to ensure quality health care services are available to the general public…I think it will be interesting to see if we’ll have the same tired responses we’ve been getting from the previous version of this government or if they will actually take the recent election results as a bold call for them to address the crisis that has been building on our health care system due to an inability to recruit.” Throughout the past months of the pandemic prior to the provincial election call, Premier Moe and Health Minister Jim Reiter repeatedly pointed to the document Program Guidelines for Special Care Homes which in 2011 replaced The Housing and Special Care Home Regulations. Interestingly, the previous document specified very clearly the staffing requirements to ensure there were enough care staff to provide appropriate, safe resident care. In facilities providing Level 3 care or higher the requirement was the ability to provide at least two hours of direct patient care per day. In facilities providing Level 1and 2 care, the time allotment was considerably less at a minimum of 20 minutes of care per resident per day.

Healthcare workers along with families of residents have been speaking out about the problem of staffing in long-term care facilities here in Saskatchewan since the crisis played out this spring in long-term care facilities in Quebec and Ontario. In response to a letter sent to Health Minister Reiter, referenced by the SEIU-West, expressing concern about the growing problem of understaffing in the healthcare system, he replied that, “Neither the Government nor the Ministry of health are in a position to be involved in human resource matters, including staffing at facilities in the Saskatchewan Health Authority.” However, in The Provincial Health Authority Act it states:

PART 2

Responsibilities and Powers of Minister

Strategic direction of system

2-1(1) The minister is responsible for the strategic direction of the health care system in Saskatchewan and may do any things that the minister considers advisable for that purpose.

(2) Without limiting the generality of subsection (1), the minister may:

(d) conduct financial, human resources and information technology planning for the health care system;

(e) develop methodologies for effective and efficient allocation of resources; and

(f) administer the allocation of available resources for the provision of health services.

Ministers power re the provincial health authority

2-4 The minister may:

(c) require the provincial health authority to prepare and implement any health services plans and any other plans that the minister considers appropriate, including performance plans, information management and technology plans and human-resource plans (2017, cP-30.3, s.2-4.)

So, in short, Minister Reiter and the Government of Saskatchewan are indeed in the position to be involved, in fact as the Minister of Health it is his responsibility to be involved as understaffing directly impacts the “provision of health services.”

Minister Reiter and Premier Moe have also stated that all long-term care facilities under the umbrella of the SHA are required to “follow care standards.” Mr. Reiter’s response to the letter went even further to say that these standards “are comprehensive and require the appropriate staffing mix to best meet residents’ needs.” However, The Program Guidelines state merely that there must be at least one registered nurse on staff, while care may be provided through a mix of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, and continuing care assistants. This says nothing about total number of frontline staff available to care for residents. The SEIU-West sees the financial aspects of any potential contract as critical to beginning to address the state of understaffing in the province’s long-term care facilities. A simple internet search for Continuing Care Aide jobs in Saskatchewan shows salaries offered from a low of $14/hr to a high of $23.17/hr, while the average wage for a Customer Service Associate/Cashier at Superstore works out to $13/hr. (ca.indeed.com/cmp/Superstore/salaries).

Health care workers in Saskatchewan are represented by three different unions; CUPE, SGEU, and SEIU-West. In February of 2019 a tentative agreement was reached between the bargaining committees and was presented to their memberships for a ratification vote. However, on April 23, 2019 while the members of CUPE and SGEU voted to ratify the contract, members of SEIU-West rejected the agreement. “The rejection of the tentative agreement gives us a clear direction and mandate to take back to the table and let SHA and the Government of Saskatchewan know that this offer doesn’t even come close to what is a fair level of compensation for our members,” said a statement posted by SEIU-West at the time. The tentative agreement did not include retroactive pay dating back to the expiration of the previous contract, and promised an increase of 1% for 2019, and 2% in each of 2020 and 2021. On September 16, 2019 SEIU-West proposed that the parties enter into voluntary arbitration.

SEIU-West engaged in an online letter writing campaign, trying to encourage the various government ministries to see their point of view. What follows is an excerpt from the online letter sent to MLAs, the Minister of Health, the Minister of Rural and Remote Health, the Minister of Labour, and the Minister of Finance – by over 1900 SEIU-West members asking them to be fair to those who care, and to end understaffing.

“…It is no secret that health care providers in Saskatchewan are experiencing higher workloads due to increasingly complex needs and across the province, health care providers are working with fewer staff than what is required for patients, residents, and clients. This has major safety consequences – in 2018, over 60, 000 days were lost due to workplace injuries – this equates to 243 full-time equivalent positions. These conditions have created one of the most dangerous environments to work in Saskatchewan. At the same time, many health care providers are also finding it difficult to afford to work in health care. The accumulation of these unacceptable conditions has caused providers to leave the health care sector, and it’s impacting others in their decision to join the health care team. Those who remain are simply asking to be valued for their work, and to earn wages that reflect their hard work.

…I know MLAs and Ministers, like yourselves, understand the negative impacts the cost of living increase has on the ability to make ends meet. That’s why you reached a decision to give yourselves a 3.5% wage increase last year and a 2.3% cost of living raise this year. So then you must understand – when the cost of living goes up for you, it goes up for all of us. Why not treat health care providers with the same treatment you provide to yourselves?

Health care providers don’t make nearly as much as the salaries of an MLA or Minister, so this decision-making from our elected leaders feels like a slap in the face to the health care providers that know the same budget that funds your salaries, funds theirs …

As our Ministers and MLAs, I implore you to resist any strategies to force health care providers to accept anything less than what they are worth – and that means a fair raise.

Better wages will attract more staff, resulting in shorter wait times and safe care – it’s a win for us all. Fair wage increases also results in health care providers’ abilities to reinvest in their community, and we know good jobs are the foundation of any community, particularly rural communities. …”

*Finance Minister Donna Harpauer’s emailed response, in part, to individuals participating in the above online letter initiative follows:

…I fully appreciate that employees across the public sector, in your case the health care sector, do valuable work for the people of our province. We know employers and unions understand the fiscal environment in Saskatchewan, and while we have returned to a modest surplus our finances are tight. Sticking to our fiscal plan means we will continue to invest in what is important to Saskatchewan people while controlling spending.

It is unfortunate that you are using a comparison of your chosen profession to one that is totally unrelated to make your determination on what is fair. It is also misleading to only select two years that led up to the years that you referenced. For your information, in the last 5 years, including the most recent increase, MLA’s have received: 0.0%, 1.6%, minus 3.5%, 3.5%, and 2.3% which equates to a 3.9% increase over 5 years. In the 5 years prior to the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement with SEIU-West members, they have received increases of: 2.0%, 1.5%, 1.5%, 1.55%, and 1.95% which equates to and 8.5% increase over 5 years.

Over the last decade a lot of effort has been put in by the public sector unions and the government bargaining teams to ensure that Saskatchewan employees are paid fairly when compared to their professional counterparts in the western Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba. Through those efforts, almost all public sector employees are receiving wages within +/- 5% of the western Canadian average of the professional colleagues.

Of note, MLAs in Saskatchewan are paid almost 10% below the western Canadian average of their counterparts and in fact, Saskatchewan MLAs are among the lowest paid in Canada. Our Government has confidence in the collective bargaining process, as it is the best way to achieve agreements that are fair to all parties….

And finally, the SEIU-West members online response, in part, to the Minister of Finance:

“Thank you to the Minister of Finance for the response to my earlier email. Unfortunately, it seems they have missed the point of the letter I have sent. In health care, frontline staff too often work with inadequate staffing levels. We are overwhelmed with the added duties and complexities to our jobs, we are continually asked to do more with less, all the while struggling every day to afford the things we need. My letter was to demonstrate the large disconnect between the people who provide health care services and the people who influence the resources available to health care. The questions I ask are: why don’t you and our elected officials demonstrate a shared common value in maintaining quality public health care in our province? Why won’t you give any weight or consequence to the real need to retain and or recruit health care providers?

While I understand Saskatchewan MLAs and Ministers make less than some others elected officials across Canada, the Minister of Finance's response completely ignores the conditions that health care providers are working in and rather focuses solely on your pay. The pay and authority for a MLA attracts many to run and become an elected. More MLAs have been added and your higher pay is secure and adjusted positively based on cost of living increases. Further to this, there are added allowances and benefits that are automatically applied to MLA wages such as vehicle and housing allowances. In the Saskatchewan health care sector, we see a very different situation.

…Focusing the response on your much higher salary offends the many health care workers who read your response and recognize you are ignoring our dire situation and our ability to provide professional world-class health care in Saskatchewan.

We were told that the introduction of the centralized Saskatchewan Health Authority would create savings that would add more resources to the frontline – this has not happened. Instead, we’re being asked to accept zeroes (in other words, cuts) and work understaffed constantly. Receiving a response from our Minister of Finance that ignores those conditions and defends MLA raises is disheartening, to say the least. …”

The rest of Saskatchewan along with the SEIU-West members will have to wait and see what will happen next in this contract dispute.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder