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Gov't Reneged on Wage Promises, Say Community Social Service Agencies

Ministry counters it never agreed to chip in for raises prior to May election.

By Tom Sandborn 2 Oct 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy stories for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net.

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Lilla Tipton, a community social service worker of more than 20 years, said her agency asked the government "many times" if it would fund salary increases. Photo by Chris Bolster/ The Powell River Peak.

Lilla Tipton says she was misled in last spring's pre-election bargaining between the provincial government and agencies like hers, the Powell River Association for Community Living.

Now, her agency and the other 200 community social service-sector agencies across British Columbia are whipsawed between the higher wages they've been paying since April -- on the basis of what they believed was a government funding commitment -- and budgets already diminished by earlier cuts.

The crunch may lead to a reduction in services to vulnerable and often developmentally-challenged B.C. residents, Tipton said.

"On the one hand, the government says we can't reduce any direct services, but these new, unfunded [wage increases] come on top of earlier cuts. We lost a million dollars a year in the 2009 budget. It is hard to see where the money is going to come from," Tipton said in an interview.

Tipton argues that prior to the May election, the agencies were assured the province would provide extra funding to cover the cost of a proposed three per cent wage increase under negotiation with their unionized workers.

The average wage for a front-line worker in Tipton's agency was $19-an-hour before April. Under the new collective agreement it has increased by 1.5 per cent already, and will reach $19.57-an-hour on Jan. 1, 2014.

Paul Finch, a vice-president of the BCGEU, which represents many of the workers in the sector, tells a similar story.

"We were told explicitly that the new contract would be funded," he said in an interview. "We were assured there would be more provincial money."

But the government says it never made such a promise, given the province's adherence to a Cooperative Gains Mandate that means any wage increases for public-sector employees must be paid for out of savings within existing budgets, with the provision that services not be sacrificed.

"Nothing in the Cooperative Gains Mandate requires that money be found to cover new wage rates from a specific agency. The government should be looking at finding efficiencies within the sector but not narrowly limited to specific agency budgets," Finch said.

"The way the government is proceeding now threatens the well-being of workers within the sector, who are poorly paid even with the modest increase we negotiated, and of their clients, some of the most vulnerable people in the province," he added.

In a July letter to Premier Christy Clark, Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion BC, an umbrella group of 70 agencies within the sector that support adults with developmental disabilities, warned the premier that the dispute over who pays for the new wage would certainly affect those who use services.

"After over more than a decade of budget cuts, there is no waste to eliminate or savings to find in the budgets of agencies serving people with developmental disabilities and their families in British Columbia," Bodnar wrote. "A decision by the government not to fund the collective agreement as promised is a decision by government to cut services."

Gov't 'has been clear', minister says

Tipton, a community social service worker of more than 20 years, said her agency asked the government "many times" if it would fund salary increases.

She said that Gentil Mateus, CEO of the Community Social Service Employers' Association of BC, which bargains collective agreements on behalf of agencies in the sector, assured her organization that he had seen a letter signed by three provincial cabinet ministers promising to pay for the wage hikes.

Contacted by The Tyee, Mateus responded: "That is not totally right and not totally wrong."

"I told the meeting [with Tipton and the directors of nine other agencies] that the government understood the cost implications of the suggested staff wage increases, and supported the contracts being signed," Mateus said. "What I didn't speak to was process going forward. There was no promise of a 'global lift' in funding to cover the raises."

The Tyee contacted the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation, one of the main government funders for agencies like Tipton's in Powell River, and asked for comment on claims that funding had been promised for negotiated wage increases in the community social service sector.

"The B.C. government has been clear that there is no new money to fund wage increases and there is no desire to download these costs onto families or future generations," Minister Don McRae responded in an emailed statement provided by a spokesperson.

"The 2012 Cooperative Gains Mandate provides public-sector employers with the ability to negotiate modest wage increases funded from savings within existing budgets while not sacrificing service to the individuals we serve, nor adding the burden of those costs to taxpayers and ratepayers."

'Cooperative losses'

Tipton said that she and other agency officials would never have urged their boards to approve new staff wage levels without a guarantee that the government would fund raises.

She called the timing of the promise and the subsequent ratification of labour agreements across her sector "concerning," noting that the contract settlements occurred shortly before the spring provincial election. The agencies were not informed that there would be no increase in provincial funding to cover staff wage increases until midsummer, well after the BC Liberals had won a new term, she said.

"They broke their promises to us," Tipton said. "Now we are being told that there will be no new money coming and we have to find the money for raises in our existing budgets. We've been paying the new wage rates since April."

Tipton said that her agency already experienced serious cuts to its funding, up to a million dollars each year, in 2009. "We already had no money to replace vehicles or other capital expenses under the previous cuts," she said.

Bodnar of Inclusion BC said that collective agreements in the sector were ratified this spring by 96 per cent of the group on the assumption that the government would chip in to cover wage increases.

"It would only take $8 million to give agencies across the sector enough room to pay the wage increases without cutting services. The government calls its new policy 'Cooperative Gains.' I call it 'Cooperative Losses.'"

She said that service cuts would mean that people will be stuck at home, that support workers who help challenged clients find and keep work in the community will be laid off, and that fewer outings and recreational activities will be available for clients.

"People will become more isolated," Bodnar said.  [Tyee]

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