Embassy West Senior Living building with snowNilda Abuan has worked as a personal support worker (PSW) at Embassy West Senior Living, an independent retirement home in Ottawa, since 2011.

She loves her job, but she has known for a long time that she and her fellow workers at Embassy West deserved better treatment and better working conditions.

In June 2018, she happened to be passing by the CUPE offices in Ottawa one day, she didn’t waste any time. She marched in and said she was ready to help get a better deal for the workers at Embassy West – and asked if CUPE wanted to help.

After teaming up with CUPE organizers, Nilda moved with lightning speed. Within a month, the workers at Embassy West had signed their cards to join CUPE and local 503 was certified as their union. On August 9, 2018, CUPE served notice to bargain.

And CUPE didn’t waste any time either, insisting on a quick process with the employer, and keeping the fire lit under their feet.

In October 2019, the 16-month process ended with a decision by an arbitrator to grant Nilda and about 100 other workers at Embassy West a strong first contract that is already making a big difference in their jobs and in their personal lives.

Before joining CUPE, workers at Embassy West were only entitled to three sick days per year – and could only use one day every four months. Now, they can accrue 15 sick days per year and bank them to a maximum of 150 days, which can be paid out when they leave their jobs.

Their vacation allowances barely met the Employment Standards Act minimum. Now, they enjoy up to six weeks of vacation per year.

Biweekly averaging on overtime meant workers would only get paid overtime if they went over 88 hours in a two-week period, but now overtime is calculated on a daily and weekly basis, with a weekly cap of 37.5 hours.

Weekend and shift premiums have been instated, and the workers now enjoy much stronger layoff and recall provisions.

Perhaps most significantly, the arbitration award for Embassy West adjusted wages between 12 and 35 per cent, depending on the classification, which was a welcome boost for PSWs who earned about $15 per hour, and RPNs who earned about $20 per hour before joining CUPE. But even better, those raises were then awarded retroactively for 14 months. For a PSW whose prior gross annual earnings were just above $30,000, those retroactive payments amounted to as much as $15,000.

And this is just the beginning. For a first agreement, the newest members of Local 503 have a lot to be proud of, and a lot more to look forward to.

In a sector that is expected to grow with an aging population, where difficult working conditions and job insecurity are the norms, the workers at Embassy West have shown that a better life is possible for long-term care workers across Canada.