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Kingston Whig-Standard (ON)
Wed 09 May 2007
Page: 8
Section: Local News
Byline: James Wallace
Source: Osprey News Network

A looming, provincewide labour dispute at agencies that serve developmentally disabled adults could see care jeopardized for thousands of Ontario’s most vulnerable adults, union officials in the sector say.

Meanwhile, the $200-million government bailout intended to stave off strikes or lockouts at group homes, agencies and other community facilities that provide care for adults with developmental disabilities may be fatally flawed, said Sid Ryan, president of CUPE Ontario.

Workers in the sector have been frustrated for years over chronically low wages, Ryan said.
And, despite the recent funding announcement, both CUPE and Ontario Public Service Employees Union locals representing some 3,500 workers report recent strike votes of 95 per cent and higher.

People who work with the developmentally handicapped may typically earn $35, 000 or less annually and 25 per cent less than workers doing similar jobs in hospitals, the union maintains.

Meanwhile, there is a $10-an-hour gap between the wages for not-for-profit and government staff that do the same work.

Ryan said unions and the agencies that provide care urged the government during pre-budget discussions to find the $200 million needed to address wage disparities in the sector.

Unions were “hopeful” when the money was announced in the spring budget, but it turns out the cash will be spread out over four years.

And just $22 million this year (and $95 million over four years) has been set aside for “wage gap funding.”

That money is also being targeted to raise the salaries of the lowest-paid workers in the sector, meaning some workers will receive substantial increases while pay hikes for others will be negligible.

Ryan said he doubts labour troubles can be avoided unless the funding plan announced by Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur more directly addresses wages.

That trouble may take the form either of strikes or lockouts.

If either scenario happens, there will be considerable hardship for clients and families, Ryan suggested. In the past, clients have been sent home to parents who are unable or incapable of providing the care their children require. Some have even ended up being cared for in private homes, Ryan said.

For the past decade, the province has increasingly moved residents out of provincial institutions and into community facilities.

Just 500 adult residents remain in three institutions – in Orillia, Smiths Falls and Chatham – and those are being closed by March 2009.

More than 40,000 adults with developmental disabilities are now in some form of community care, ranging from help to live on their own or with roommates to group homes and long-term care homes.

Approximately 7,000 unionized workers are employed in those community facilities and half, at some 70 locations, are working under contracts that expired March 31.

James Wallace is Queen’s Park bureau chief for Osprey News.