by Doug Nesbitt
Near the end of 2016, new owners took over the Georgian Bay Retirement Home, a private facility in Penetanguishene, the lakeside Ontario town of about ten thousand people.
The new owners were Edgecon, a property management and construction company. To manage day-to-day operations, Edgecon brought in consulting company Caymans Staffing Solutions.
The home’s residents, anywhere from 60 to 80, pay out of pocket for their care. The high level of care, proximity to the general hospital, and location in the downtown make it a desirable home.
For Natasha Howell, one of the workers at the home, the ownership changes were not good.
“They informed us that we were no longer getting direct deposits. Since then we’ve had late paycheques.” Accrued vacation pay was also being withheld. Howell says she understands there is a switch over of owners, but the lack of communication is a problem. “They don’t really give us much information. They kind of do whatever they want. It’s really hard to talk to them.”
Then the situation got even worse.
“They informed us right before Christmas that there would be a pay cut. I was making $14.50/hour. They dropped me down to $13/hour. There are PSWs making $18/hour who are now making $15/hour.”
The pay cuts were across the board for the nearly 60 staff including Personal Support Workers, Registered Practical Nurses, as well as kitchen, maintenance and clerical workers. The pay cuts ranged anywhere from $1/hour to $4/hour and were applied inconsistently. Stress levels shot through the roof and some people quit, leaving the home understaffed.
That’s when Natasha started organizing a union.
“I’m the one who started this but I didn’t start this for me. It’s the PSWs who work short all the time, people calling in sick and then other people having to pick up the slack and they don’t get proper raises, not even “you’re doing great.” We get nothing.”
Through December and January, Howell and some of her co-workers began signing union cards with the help of Jesse Cullen, an organizer from SEIU Local 1. The pay cuts, the loss of direct deposit, scheduling problems, late paycheques and missing hours all contributed to support for a union.
“There were quite a few people who were “Yes, let’s do it!”,” says Howell.
In early January, management got wind of the union drive. “Two weeks ago we caught a manger going through my office, which never happens,” says Howell. Then management claimed a union would mean closing down the home. Cullen says this just made people more determined since they had nothing left to lose. Spirits and determination remain high.
“There are a few of us who are really excited,” says Howell of her co-workers. “[There’s been] a change in attitude since we all started this.” But not everyone is on board with the union. To those on the fence, Howell says, “You can be a part of this. The more people we have the quicker it’s going to change.”
Howell and her co-workers are committed to maintaining the quality care they deliver at the home, but they also want to make sure they have good jobs. Winning benefits is one of their goals with forming a union and bargaining collectively. Seniority is also another issue.
“When these new employers came in they said, nope, this is your new hire date,” reports Howell. “From my understanding they can’t do this, they have to acknowledge the time we’ve spent there. So seniority is a big thing with us.” Related to this, internal hiring is also a big issue. “Instead of going outside, we want a chance to apply for the positions.”
The workers at Georgian Bay Retirement Home are submitting cards soon. There is also a rally this coming Thursday at 4:45, at Main Street and Poyntz Street at Memorial Park.
You and your union can show your support for the Georgian Bay Retirement Home union drive by sending messages of solidarity and support to the workers by emailing Jesse Cullen: firstname.lastname@example.org