OCHU Bill 124 - webHospital staff are angered and stunned by how the Ontario government and the hospital employers are treating them following two years of pandemic sacrifice as provincial bargaining broke down May 14, says the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) the hospital division of the CUPE in Ontario.

“They are very demoralized and upset by the utter disrespect throughout negotiations which have been unfolding as they diligently and bravely worked through a pandemic,” says OCHU-CUPE president Michael Hurley. “If staff didn’t put patients’ interests ahead of their own, Doug Ford would face massive labour unrest in the hospitals.”

CUPE and SEIU Healthcare have been in negotiations with the government funded Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) for a new contract for nearly 70,000 front-line hospital staff.  This is a predominantly female and highly skilled workforce who have made many sacrifices caring for patients throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the contract talks, hospital staff have been clear in telling the Doug Ford PCs that their pre-pandemic law - Bill 124 that with rising inflation gives them a 6% pay cut and that is fueling a mass exodus of staff, has to be repealed in order to staunch the staff shortages. Dealing with rising violence from patients, high patient loads, increasing mental health trauma and infection risks, registered practical nurse (RPN) vacancies are three times what they were pre-pandemic. Vacancies in other hospital occupations have quadrupled.

“I can’t overstate how burnt out and unhappy registered practical nurses like me feel. But despite that we are there for patients. Have been there for them for two gruelling pandemic years. Many nurses are leaving their jobs though and there is a staffing crisis. But aside from the public platitudes, behind the scenes the PC government undervalues us and is punishing us with a law that gives us a wage cut,” says Melanie Viau an RPN and OCHU francophone vice-president.

With these provincial negotiations, the hospital employers through the OHA could have signalled to this valuable workforce that they were on the side of their frontlines and on the side of staffing stability and patient care. 

The OHA has done the opposite, says OCHU-CUPE president Michael Hurley, tabling concessions, refusing to address health and safety protections and “pretending that inflation is not surging. That means that hospital staff are facing a 10% cut to real wages due to inflation in 2021 and 2022. The hospitals say that they do not support Bill 124, but in the first year of this contract when they had an opportunity to be more generous, they refused. The lack of respect, empathy, support and compassion that these hospitals have for their front-line staff is now clear.”

Ontario’s three opposition parties have all said that if elected on June 2, they will scrap the PC’s Bill 124 wage cap law and engage with stakeholders including unions like CUPE and SEIU Healthcare – to deal with the staffing crisis and develop long-term retention and attraction strategies in the health care sector.

“Ontarians wholeheartedly support this mostly female hospital workforce and want them to be fairly compensated for the skilled work they do. Our polling of Ontarians shows that. But not a single PC MPP has said they will push to repeal their sexist and discriminatory, Bill 124 that’s fueling the exodus of staff from hospitals,” says Sharon Richer, OCHU secretary-treasurer.

Following this weekend’s bargaining mediation failure, all indicators from CUPE’s hospital leadership is that they will escalate member mobilizing across the province for more full-time hospital staff jobs, better wages, hospitals free of violence and harassment and higher personal protective equipment to lower infection risks for them as well as patients.

Because hospital staff are not afforded the right to strike under Ontario law, the provincial contract for CUPE’s and SEIU Healthcare’s hospital sector members will be heading to an arbitration board in June to resolve the outstanding issues. Under Ontario’s Hospitals Labour Disputes Arbitration Act, the term of the next contract will be 2-years beginning in September 2022.