Removing barriers for the Deaf, Deafened, Orally Deaf and Hard of Hearing community is a mainstay of the Canadian Hearing Society’s (CHS) mission of inclusivity. But when it comes to its own workforce, say striking staff at the agency, CHS is attacking the very sick leave provisions and health benefits originally intended to “break barriers” and help the predominantly female workforce from the deaf and hard of hearing community deal with stressful, demanding work.
“Our work is mentally, emotionally and physically challenging. The sick leave and health plan negotiated over a period of 40 years sustains us. It’s difficult to understand the recent shift in management culture at CHS,” says Stacey Connor, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 2073.
CHS is asking for major rollbacks on sick leave. This includes replacing the existing plan with options that would gut the sick leave plan and have an outside evaluator determine who qualifies for coverage.
“Our work is premised on breaking down barriers for deaf Ontarians to live inclusive lives. For CHS to attack sick leave provisions that enable us – a mostly female workplace with many deaf and hard of hearing employees – to do our jobs, is heart wrenchingly difficult to accept. We are role models in our community. We had no choice but to strike,” says Connor.
227 counsellors, literacy instructors, audiologists, speech language pathologists, interpreters/interpreter trainers, clerical support, program coordinators, program assistants, information technology specialists, and other staff from 24 CHS offices across Ontario, have been on a legal strike since Monday, March 6.
On picket lines throughout the province, strikers are seeing tremendous support from people who rely on CHS services. There is also considerable online support, with many CHS service users clearly expressing concerns about changes at the agency that they view as negative, well before the strike started.
“Those who use our services understand why we are striking. They’ve been posting online about the changes at CHS that they don’t like, for some time now. Their kindness and support means a lot to us. But like us they want to resolve the labour dispute and a new contract,” says Connor.
Through the provincially-appointed mediator, CUPE has made several overtures to CHS “that we are more than willing to go back to the bargaining table this week,” says CUPE national staff Barbara Wilker-Frey. “Despite telling several media outlets they want to return to contract talks, as of Tuesday night, CHS did not respond with a date to resume bargaining. If CHS truly cares about the community which forms the basis of their vision and mission, then they have to come back to the table to negotiate an agreement that allows our front-line workers to return to their work that is so vital for the deaf and hard of hearing communities.”
Lack of respect for the bargaining process has been consistent throughout the contract talks, says Wilker-Frey with the employer team routinely dawdling, wasting time and showing up late to run out the clock on the interpreters who are needed to facilitate talks. “Extended bargaining days are not a reality for this group because of the physical and mental demands required when bargaining with interpretation. We’re not like other bargaining teams and we operate within set bargaining hours. This ensures accessibility and equality for our team, something we thought the employer would respect, but clearly does not,” says