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Treat Us as Equals, BC's Community Social Service Workers Say

Roving job action not enough to bring employers, employees together over wage and benefit disparities.

By Katie Hyslop, 5 Dec 2012, TheTyee.ca

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Strikers post in front of the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society yesterday. Photo by Katie Hyslop.

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If you are a client of Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (VACFSS), chances are you didn't notice a disruption in the services you received yesterday. But if you had visited the East Broadway building, you would have had to pass a few dozen striking workers on your way in.

Community social service workers under the BC Government Employees Union took part in a one-day job action protesting the government's cooperative gains mandate and their employers' request for budget cuts in exchange for wage increases. It was just one of a "rolling series" of walkouts the union has staged across the province since they left the bargaining table on Aug. 17.

"The government has been sticking to its bargaining mandate of co-operative gains, which means you have to cut something in your collective agreement to get wage gains. Basically, it's taking out from one pocket and putting it in the other," said Oliver Rohlfs, the union's communications officer.

"The problem in this sector is that they've already gone through a decade of cuts. It's community workers in not-for-profit societies that are already doing a lot with very little, and there's not much scope for achieving co-operative gains."

Their employer, the Community Social Services Employers' Association (CSSEA), admits employees are making up to 10 per cent less than comparable jobs in the education and health sectors. Negotiations have been difficult because there is little left to cut.

"A lot of the efficiencies and cost savings were realized in 2003. So there (aren't) a lot of areas that we can find additional savings going forward," said Gentil Mateus, CEO of CSSEA.

Beyond demanding comparable pay for comparable work, there's also a feeling of inequality between aboriginal and non-aboriginal agencies that recalls old tensions between governments and First Nations. Comparing herself to a Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD) social worker, VACFSS child protection worker Maggie Fiddler says she does the same job for less.

"There's no difference in the work that we do, there's no difference in the degrees needed, there's no difference in the ongoing training to be at the delegation level between MCFD and aboriginal services," she told The Tyee.

Essential services maintained

There are approximately 60,000 community social service support workers in B.C. working in a variety of areas, from Aboriginal child and family services, to transition housing, crisis centres, and more. Roughly 15,000 of them are employed by CSSEA, which covers non-profit organizations receiving at least 50 per cent of their funding from government.

Most of the workers taking part in yesterday's walkout were administrative staff. Other community social service employees were deemed essential workers, and under the bargaining agreement were not allowed to participate in job action. That was to "make sure that the health and safety of anybody covered by a social service worker is not affected," according to Rohlf.

Mateus estimates about 70 per cent of CSSEA community social service workers are employed as part of Community Living BC under the Ministry of Social Services, while the MCFD employs the rest, including those working for Delegated Aboriginal Agencies like VACFSS.

Such agencies provide child and family services comparable to those of ministry social workers, but to aboriginal communities. Representing over 2,000 kids in care, as of July aboriginal agencies were responsible for 44.4 per cent of aboriginal children in care.

Most community social service workers want to be on par with their colleagues in the province's healthcare sector. Mateus says the Health Employers' Association of BC, which employs facilities, community, and health science employees in the province, is their biggest competitor for workers.

"We want to ensure that the sector is competitive in recruiting and retaining staff, because we believe that it's important to ensure that the sector delivers quality client care going forward," he told The Tyee.

While health employees don't have a deal yet, negotiations will resume on Dec. 10. Negotiations for community service workers, however, have gone nowhere in almost five months.

Rohlf says they haven't come back to the table because CSSEA hasn't produced any compensation offers. But Mateus says just because they aren't at the table doesn't mean they aren't talking.

"We want to be back at the table when both sides have something meaningful to discuss, that can bring us closer to reaching an agreement. But the timing is not quite right yet," he said. "What's made this round of bargaining particularly complex is the expectations that workers have are significantly higher than our ability to generate savings within the sector."

The largest union in this sector is BCGEU, closely followed by CUPE. Sheryl Burns, a community social services worker at the Battered Women's Services Society and vice president of CUPE Local 1936, says one thing her colleagues in health have that she doesn't is higher wages.

"We do much of the same work as healthcare workers in that particular agreement, but we're compensated at much lower rates. We actually are the lowest paid public sector workers out there," she said.

Back in 2000, workers were paid roughly $16.50, but now an average starting wage is $15.42, she said. "But we have workers that are making maybe $13.42 an hour."

Unequal pay for aboriginal services

Although Burns doesn't work for VACFSS, she and a half dozen other Battered Women's Services Society employees marched in front of VACFSS yesterday to support aboriginal community social service workers.

"Workers with VACFS are getting a raw deal. They're not getting compensated at the same rate as other workers in the field of social work are, and we believe that's discrimination," she said.

"I see this as an example of aboriginal people being abused by the system and being disrespected by the government."

For Fiddler, the main issue is benefits. For example, where MCFD-employed social workers have their wages topped up during maternity leave, Delegated Aboriginal Agency employees make do with Employment Insurance.

"If a ministry social worker gets pregnant, her employer tops up. She's not going to be sitting at 60 per cent of her wages; she's going to see 100 per cent of her wages, and that is not what's going on here," she said.

Another issue is paid sick days, which were cut down for all community social service workers to 12 from 18 days in 2003. But Mateus says overall benefits are comparable to workers in similar fields.

"When you look at extended health, dental, long-term disability, accidental death and disability, the benefits are very comparable," he said.

This is not the first time Delegated Aboriginal Agencies have spoken out about receiving unequal treatment. As of this past July, the agencies were providing services to just over 2,000 children, 44.4 per cent of all aboriginal children in care. At the same time, all social service agencies were dealing with the slow and bug-filled transition from an old data management system to the new Integrated Case Management system that resulted in lost files and a risk to children and families receiving services.

Yet Lise Haddock, executive director of Lalum'utul' Smun'eem Child and Family Services of the Cowichan Tribes, told The Tyee last July that MCFD did not provide funding to update and combine aboriginal agency data management systems, resulting in social workers using three separate data management systems -- two government and one aboriginal -- to keep track of children and their families.

Fiddler hopes these walkouts will help aboriginal agencies and other community social service workers achieve parity with similar services in terms of benefits and wages. But even if that happens, she wants a change in government, too.

"I want Christy Clark's resignation. I want us to have a government that cares about the people that they govern, not just the rich but for the middle class, the working class, and our people in poverty," she said.  [Tyee]

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