Zaid Noorsumar | CUPE Staff
CUPE 5911 paramedics in Kenora had faced discrimination seeking accommodation during pregnancy going back many years. But in the spring of 2022, they reversed the tide, and achieved significant wins during negotiations for parents and expectant workers as well, as they found a far more receptive employer at the table. This is the story of how an organizing effort made that possible.
Nicole Runge always knew about the difficulty Kenora’s paramedics faced when applying for accommodation during pregnancy. Therefore, as an expectant mother, she worked as long as she could before finally requesting modified duties. “I pushed myself on the road until I felt completely unsafe and no longer able to do the job,” she says.
But it wasn’t until her second pregnancy that the unrelenting misery of battling her employer for a basic human right made her determined to fight back against systemic discrimination.
The employer, Kenora District Services Board, denied her request for accommodation — which in a paramedic’s case would mean ‘light work’ such as working in an office environment, instead of riding in an ambulance, responding to emergencies and doing strenuous physical work. In response, CUPE 5911 filed a grievance.
“I had to fight tooth and nail for accommodation. The employer would take their sweet time to respond as we moved through the grievance process,” notes Runge, who is now the vice-president of her local. “It was like a marathon. They would say they would have an appointment with me, or they would work with me, and then they wouldn’t.”
The employer contended that she should go on short-term disability (STD) leave. Runge felt that was wrong — she was not disabled, and the reduced STD compensation wouldn’t be sufficient to pay her bills and her mortgage.
Backed by her union, Runge persisted. And during the last month of her pregnancy, she was finally accommodated. But the experience was draining and she had had enough.
“There were many times where I was super stressed out, crying and trying to figure things out,” she says, reminiscing about the stress of potentially losing her home. “And I didn’t want anybody to feel like that. Because there is nothing worse than the joyous moment of bringing a new life into this world being squished by concerns women shouldn’t face in the 21st century.”
Resolved to change the workplace culture, Runge began organizing.
Together, co-workers are stronger
The first step was finding out the extent of the problem, Runge says. She reached out to all the CUPE 5911 members who had requested accommodation for pregnancy over the last 20 years and compiled their testimonies.
“I told them that this is still an issue, that it is unacceptable and that I want to change this so it never happens again,” she recalls. “Everybody was onboard and supportive. And it took some time and patience, but I collected letters from all these women and heard their stories.”
Runge found that nearly every paramedic had faced the employer’s resistance. It was clear that sexist discrimination was deeply embedded in the work culture.
There was Amanda*, placed on unpaid medical leave and asked to apply for STD. She was eventually reimbursed by the employer just before delivery, but still lost out on a month’s worth of wages.
Sandra* told the employer that her doctor disagreed with their recommendation that she apply for STD. In response, her manager made the highly inappropriate suggestion that her doctor revise their note. She was eventually accommodated.
Laura*, too, faced a struggle before the employer assigned her light duties. But she was directed to work from an office that was 90 minutes away, despite her doctor advising her against travelling. The employer’s response? “Take it or leave it.”
And Claire* was told that she should be grateful for the benefits she has because women in the United States only receive six weeks of maternity leave.
In addition, in multiple cases, women saved vacation days in anticipation of their request being denied.
Hearing about her co-workers’ struggles was an emotional experience for Runge, who cried while reading accounts of the atrocious treatment meted out to women.
“It was heartbreaking to know that is what they suffered, alone and in silence,” she says. “I felt like someone finally heard them and felt their pain. And I feel like I helped them in two different ways: I helped them change the system, and I helped by listening to their stories and acknowledging what had happened to them.”
She says it wasn’t easy for the workers either to write those testimonials, as they feared backlash and gendered stigma of being labelled ‘crazy.’
“Women always fight against being stigmatized in male-dominant careers. You must be stoic, and if you show emotion, then you are weak. And then if you are weak, you can’t do your job,” she explains.
A successful campaign
The next step was sending a message to the elected municipal officials of the Kenora District Services Board. In December 2021, CUPE 5911’s letter — signed by every member of the union’s executive board — cited anonymized testimonies collected by Runge and demonstrated a clear pattern of gender-based discrimination.
Around the same time, Runge’s midwife who had also provided care to some other Kenora paramedics, wrote to the board of directors about the treatment faced by these women.
The rising pressure led to success. Since then, the two paramedics who have requested accommodation have had their requests swiftly approved.
The union also noticed a change in the employer’s attitude during contract negotiations in the spring of 2022. During bargaining, CUPE 5911 won significant gains for parents and pregnant workers, including five extra weeks of paternity leave, and 100% compensation during maternity and paternity leaves (up from 93%).
According to Runge, these positive developments are a testament to the strength displayed by the paramedics in standing up for their rights. She says that the members are very satisfied with some of the achievements for parents in the new contract, especially the younger generation of women who are having children or expecting to start families soon.
As for the older generation of women, Runge acknowledges they are happy about their involvement in the process of making the long-awaited change. “They feel like they are a part of accomplishing that. Even though they know that they won’t benefit from these wins, they are glad that others won’t suffer like they did,” she says.
* Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.