Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Overwhelmed addictions centre staff set to walk off the job Monday | CBC News

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Jacqueline Matthews, the bargaining chair for OPSEU Local 454, stands outside Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services on Saturday. Staff there have told managers they will go on strike Monday unless the two sides can reach a new deal. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

UPDATE | Rideauwood workers ratified a new contract Sunday evening and the strike has been averted. According to the union, the deal includes a wage hike and movement toward addressing “chronic workload challenges.”

Workers at an out-patient treatment centre west of downtown are set to strike Monday morning, partly to protest chronic underfunding they say is leading to heavy workloads and staff burnout amid a toxic drug crisis. 

About 45 employees at Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services on Parkdale Avenue in Hintonburg recently warned their managers they’ll walk off the job unless the two groups come eye-to-eye on a new collective agreement by midnight.

A strike headquarters trailer was already positioned opposite the centre’s back entrance Saturday afternoon. 

If the strike happens, the centre’s individual and group counselling services, including those offered in public schools, will be halted, with clients directed to other resources such as AccessMHA

Jacqueline Matthews, the bargaining chair for Local 454 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union — which represents the workers — said members don’t take their stance lightly. 

“We care deeply for our clients,” Matthews, who also works at Rideauwood, said on Friday. “That’s why we do the work.”

Local 454 strike trailer ready and waiting outside Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, May 4, 2024, Ottawa
A strike headquarters trailer stands ready outside the centre on Saturday. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Rideauwood provided services to over 3,000 people last year. 

Matthews said the employees are vulnerable to “vicarious trauma” and want a new contract that addresses workload issues and ups their pay at a time of rising food and housing costs.

She noted many colleagues are holding down multiple jobs to make ends meet. 

“Our counselors are fantastic and skilled and do the best we can do, but there’s only so much one person can do,” she said. 

It’s hoped a walkout will also focus attention on the trickle-down effects of systemic underfunding from the province, she added. 

“Underfunding leads to under-resourcing, and without proper funding and resourcing, it impacts the ability for workers to do the work properly and safely.”

What led to this 

The workers’ contract expired in March 2023, with the union and management meeting a dozen times since last August.

This March, members voted in favour of strike action “if necessary.” A mediator was brought in on April 30, to no avail. 

Rob Boyd, the CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health — a downtown harm reduction centre whose supervised injection site clients receive counselling from Rideauwood staff — said the Hintonburg centre is a key player in Ottawa’s substance abuse system. 

“We don’t have enough to meet demand as it is and we certainly don’t want to lose a piece of what we already have,” he said via email. 

At the same time, he agreed that harm reduction services continue to be seriously underfunded “given the increased demand and complexity of the people we work with.”  

Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services front door, May 4, 2024
Rideauwood provided services to just over 3,000 people last year. If a strike happens, its individual and group counselling sessions will be halted. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Management’s response

Johanne Levesque, Rideauwood’s executive director, said Saturday she expected talks would continue over the weekend and hoped a walkout could be avoided. 

Clients already face long wait times, she said, and a strike would only make things worse.

“The longer people wait, the more likely they are to turn to emergency rooms and to clog up our hospitals,” she said. 

Levesque said she has the utmost admiration for the workers, adding the centre is committed to a safe workplace and noting staff have had increased access supports such as psychotherapists. 

She said she understands workers’ concerns about underfunding, calling it a “historical” problem for the entire sector. Organizations across the province face rising operating costs, including rent, while core funding has not kept up with inflation, she said.

“I really hope that we can get through this and that Monday we can get back to providing the services,” Levesque said. 

 

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