Workers at YouthLink, a mental health agency that helps roughly 3,000 Torontonians aged 12 to 24 each year, are unanimous in their belief that youth in crisis need consistent care provided by fairly paid workers.

YouthLink’s clinical counsellors, child and youth workers, residential counsellors, outreach workers, shelter workers, student development workers and administrative staff represented by CUPE 2192 of the CUPE, voted 100% in favour of a strike mandate. They have been without a collective agreement for more than 700 days, going back to March 31, 2021. During that time, YouthLink has continued to lose staff and workers have continued to burn out. The employer’s response has been to increase the number of highly paid managers instead of investing in the critical frontline workers.

“The youth we serve are in dire need. They come to us having experienced trauma, anxiety, andd depression. Some are harming themselves or having suicidal ideation. Others have lived on the streets,” explains Blair Coombs, a clinical counsellor and CUPE 2192 president with nine years’ experience at YouthLink. “The stakes for these kids could not be higher. They deserve the best care provided by consistent workers. But management’s actions have turned YouthLink into the farm team of care providers. Workers come here to get experience then immediately leave for better wages elsewhere. Imagine what that revolving door of staff does to a young person with abandonment issues. How do you expect them to connect, build trust, and heal?”

These workers were regularly touted as heroes throughout the pandemic. YouthLink’s shelter staff and residential counsellors continued to come to work in congregate settings to help youth with complex needs every day. That commitment has not been met with an equal amount of respect or compensation as YouthLink workers can command thousands of dollars more at other community agencies throughout the city. This, says Coombs, helps explain why there are upwards of 25 unfilled positions at the agency right now.

The bargaining committee put forward reasonable and affordable proposals that would address this staffing crisis and ensure that all youth receive the type of supports they need. In response, YouthLink’s CEO has yet to join them at the bargaining table. The committee is returning to conciliation on March 20.

“YouthLink doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s an entire ecosystem of services that are being hollowed out. Any young person can experience a mental health challenge. And when they do, they can come to us,” says Coombs. “We exist to help youth with complex needs find a way forward. It’s a calling for me and my coworkers. We love our work. But unless things change, young people and families won’t be able to depend on our services.”