Health workers confront P.E.I. premier, health minister at legislature over wages

One of the unions that represents health-care workers on the Island said it has broken off its contract negotiations with Health P.E.I. 

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) held a news conference Thursday outside the provincial legislature, and met with Premier Dennis King and Health Minister Mark McLane before Question Period. 

The union said it ended its bargaining with the province and said it wants to move to conciliation in its contract talks.  

Under P.E.I.’s Labour Act, conciliation is when a third party is requested by either side in labour talks “to confer with the parties … to assist them to conclude a collective agreement.”

CUPE national servicing representative Lori MacKay told King and McLane outside the legislature that its union members are struggling to make ends meet, and will continue to do so until they get a fair wage increase. 

A person reads from a paper behind a microphone, with a group of six people stand behind her holding signs reading, 'Leave no health care worker behind.'
CUPE national servicing representative Lori MacKay speaks to the media outside the P.E.I. Legislature on Thursday. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

“We’re representing a very frustrated and demoralized group of employees,” MacKay told the politicians. “The wage proposal that’s on the table does nothing to come close to what our workers need.

“We heard yesterday from one department that they have no casuals for summer replacement.”

CUPE P.E.I. represents nearly 1,000 health workers across hospitals, long-term care facilities, treatment centres, and public health units.

The province had offered the workers a wage increase of 10.5 per cent over three years, but the union said that’s not enough for its members to cope with recent inflation.

According to CUPE, a recent survey it conducted found 85 per cent of its members are struggling to afford groceries and electricity costs, forcing some health-care workers to leave the field, or take second jobs in some cases. 

The premier told MacKay on Thursday there’s a deal to be made — if the union comes back to the bargaining table. 

“I don’t know if you’ve been ignored,” King said. “I think you maybe aren’t as happy as you’d like to be, but we’re trying very hard — as we have with all of the other unions — to raise this [to] a level that’s more acceptable,”

Last month, CUPE and three other unions that represent health-care workers on the Island signed a letter addressed to the government expressing their frustration with what they called “lip service” meetings with their employer about the deteriorating health system.

The union representatives alleged management is not following the collective agreements in some cases.

Health care worker holding signs in front of the PEI Legislature building
‘Our members are defeated, they’re deflated,’ says Cindy Ramsay, right, a service worker at Somerset Manor, who attended Thursday’s rally with Rhonda Diamond, a ward clerk at the QEH. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

Rhonda Diamond, a ward clerk at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) in Charlottetown who attended Thursday’s rally, said while the premier continues to tell union members there’s a deal to be had, she’s not optimistic based on negotiations so far. 

“I can guarantee you in almost every department we’re struggling,” Diamond said. “We’re struggling to pay the bills, we’re struggling to provide proper services in the health-care system, and this is no secret to the government.

“I don’t know what else we can do … to help support our members. We need our hospitals [to be] safe, we need to provide the services, and we need staff.”

‘They’re deflated’

CUPE’s health division was one of the unions that missed out on the province’s recruitment and retention bonuses paid out in 2022. 

That year, P.E.I. paid thousands of dollars to some health-care workers, but not others. Lab technicians, physiotherapists and respiratory therapists did not get bonuses, while nurses, paramedics and resident-care workers did.

“Our members are defeated, they’re deflated,” said Cindy Ramsay, a service worker at Somerset Manor in Summerside. “We’ve been told numerous times we don’t have high enough vacancy rates [for wage increases].

“You try and tell that to a cook who can’t get vacation time. It’s in dire straits.”

Bobby Kennedy, a sterilization technician at the QEH, said he’s hopeful to hear the government say it wants to ink a better deal. But he said he’ll believe it when he sees it. 

A male health-care worker holding a sign that says Leave no healthcare worker behind.
Queen Elizabeth Hospital sterilization technician Bobby Kennedy says the CUPE health workers haven’t been receiving the support that doctors and nurses on the Island are. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

“It was nice to see the premier and the minister of health actually come out and have a conversation with us,” Kennedy said. “We’ve been trying to do this forever and a day.

“We’ve been pounding on the door of the legislature quite a few times, we haven’t had a response. Our workers are suffering and they need a real wage increase right now.”

In a statement, the province’s health agency said it does not comment publicly on negotiations at the bargaining table. 

“Health P.E.I. remains open and willing to meet with the union,” the statement said. “We respect the union’s right to move from the bargaining table to conciliation, and will participate fully in the process to reach a fair collective agreement.”

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