Shaw Centre workers speak out after layoffs

·3 min read
A cyclist rides past the dormant Shaw Centre in April. Workers who were laid off during the pandemic are speaking out, saying they feel abandoned. (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)
A cyclist rides past the dormant Shaw Centre in April. Workers who were laid off during the pandemic are speaking out, saying they feel abandoned. (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)

Laid-off employees of Ottawa's Shaw Centre say they've been "discarded" by both their employer and their union for the past 14 months.

About 40 full-time and 220 part-time workers have been out of work since March 2020 when convention business halted due to the pandemic.

"It's like we don't exist," said Lynne Villeneuve, who has worked as a banquet server since 1989. "You think you work in a place for so many years and they would just discard us like that? I find it hurtful and disappointing."

The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy funding is not available to public institutions. Shaw Centre employees, who work for a provincial Crown corporation, aren't eligible for the federal subsidy and are relying on employment insurance that will run out before work returns.

The building seems to be very important, the workers seem to be worthless. - Michael Vorobej, former banquet server at Shaw Centre

The head of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association Steve Ball said economists don't expect business meetings and conventions to return until 2023 at the earliest.

Unable to pay for prescriptions

Villeneuve was forced to give up her condo and moved into a co-op rental apartment she calls "a dump."

When health benefits were terminated by her employer in November, Villeneuve said she was unable to continue paying for prescription medications.

She said there has been no communication from management nor any sign that their union, The United Steelworkers, have advocated for them.

"They're not supporting us at all. We're just dumped to the side," she said.

'It’s like we don’t exist,' says banquet server Lynne Villeneuve, who had to leave her condo and move into a co-op apartment when the centre closed.
'It’s like we don’t exist,' says banquet server Lynne Villeneuve, who had to leave her condo and move into a co-op apartment when the centre closed.(Submitted)

Marty Warren, the union's director for Ontario and the Maritimes, said the union hadn't predicted the workers would be out of work for so long, so they hadn't yet advocated for them.

"Maybe it's time we get together and with other like-minded people and companies and start talking to the government."

Though the Shaw Centre building has been dormant for the past year, according to the province's sunshine list, the president and vice-president took home a combined $450,000 in salaries in 2020.

Neither the president nor the vice-president responded to interview requests.

$3.8M funding for facility

In December, Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries, announced a one-time funding of $3.8 million for the centre, calling it an "important investment" to keep the facility open and fund necessary repairs and upgrades.

"The building seems to be very important, the workers seem to be worthless. That's the only conclusion you could reach," said longtime banquet server Michael Vorobej, who's worked there since 1999.

Vorobej said the union has abandoned workers and should have known the return of convention work would be years away.

Michael Vorobej, a server at the Shaw Centre since 1999, said workers had been forgotten during the pandemic.
Michael Vorobej, a server at the Shaw Centre since 1999, said workers had been forgotten during the pandemic.(Stu Mills/CBC)

With his income chopped in half, and time running out on his six-month mortgage payment deferral plan, Vorobej said the centre should have offered severance packages for longtime employees.

"I think at a minimum, we should be continuing the benefits," said Ottawa South MPP John Fraser, who on March 29 wrote a letter to MacLeod on behalf of the workers. Fraser said he did not get a response from MacLeod. The minister did not respond to CBC's questions.

Bill Sanchez has been a banquet server with the facility since 1984, making him the most senior person on staff — a record of employment for which he is proud.

"We are left behind," said Sanchez. "Nobody knows why."

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