The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Before you click away, we have something to ask you…

Do you value independent journalism that focuses on the issues that matter? Do you think Canada needs more in-depth, fact-based reporting? So do we. If you’d like to be part of the solution, we’d love it if you joined us in working on it.

The Tyee is an independent, paywall-free, reader-funded publication. While many other newsrooms are getting smaller or shutting down altogether, we’re bucking the trend and growing, while still keeping our articles free and open for everyone to read.

The reason why we’re able to grow and do more, and focus on quality reporting, is because our readers support us in doing that. Over 5,000 Tyee readers chip in to fund our newsroom on a monthly basis, and that supports our rockstar team of dedicated journalists.

Join a community of people who are helping to build a better journalism ecosystem. You pick the amount you’d like to contribute on a monthly basis, and you can cancel any time.

Help us make Canadian media better by joining Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
Get our free newsletter
Sign Up
Rights + Justice
Labour + Industry

After Long Fight, Overdose Prevention Site Peer Workers Join Union

They’re vital to the operation of the life-saving sites, but often have fewer protections and are paid less.

Jen St. Denis 18 Jan 2021 |

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Peer harm-reduction workers with PHS Community Services have unionized after a long battle.

The certification vote was held in March, but challenges from PHS meant the ballots weren’t counted until now. They showed all 35 employees voted to join CUPE 1004, a union local that represents other PHS workers and some city employees.

Peer workers have current or previous lived experience using drugs and are vital to the operation of overdose prevention sites and other harm reduction programs. The workers use their own experience and knowledge to make vulnerable people feel comfortable enough to use the life-saving services.

And yet peer workers often work under much more precarious conditions than other staff and often don’t have access to the same worker protections, vacation or health benefits, because they are not considered employees. They’re also often paid less, even though the work they do can be dangerous.

Those issues were highlighted this summer when peer worker Thomus Donaghy was killed while on a break from his shift at the overdose prevention site at St. Paul’s Hospital, a site that was operated by RainCity Housing.

Donaghy had been passionate about his work, and often roamed the alleys of the Downtown Eastside with his Narcan kit looking for people who had overdosed.

Donaghy was not among the group who voted to join the union, but his death sparked a conversation about working conditions at overdose prevention sites. At a memorial event for Donaghy in August, a manager at the St. Paul’s OPS said peer workers don’t get the recognition they deserve.

“They do just as much work as the unionized staff and they get paid less, which is bullshit in my opinion,” Rachel Plamondon told The Tyee.

After workers voted in March, PHS Community Services challenged the union’s list of employees and there were further delays because of COVID-19.

One of the main organizers of the union drive, David Apsey, died in April before the votes could be counted.

“He leaves a legacy of solidarity and strength for peer support workers,” the union said in statement.

The workers who voted to join the union work at Insite, the Washington Needle Depot, iOAT and several overdose prevention sites operated by PHS.

Andrew Ledger, president of CUPE local 1004, said the vote to unionize covers around 40 workers who are considered to be "peer supervisors."

Ledger said peer workers have become vital to harm-reduction services in the Downtown Eastside and it's good to have their work officially recognized. "They haven't always been treated the way they should," he said.

The next step is to form a bargaining unit and negotiate wages and working conditions, Ledger said. The peer supervisors who voted to unionize currently make an hourly wage that falls in the "high teens to low 20s," Ledger said, while unionized workers at PHS now make $27 to $28 an hour.

Counting the ballots was delayed because PHS argued peer workers weren't employees but rather "recipients of therapeutic programs," Ledger said, adding he hopes peer workers at other organizations will now be encouraged to unionize.

*Story updated on Jan. 18 at 6:19 p.m. with information received from a CUPE spokesperson after publication.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Do not:

  •  Use sexist, classist, racist or homophobic language
  • Libel or defame
  • Bully, threaten, name-call or troll
  • Troll patrol. Instead, downvote, or flag suspect activity
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities


  • Verify facts, debunk rumours
  • Add context and background
  • Spot typos and logical fallacies
  • Highlight reporting blind spots
  • Ignore trolls and flag violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity
  • Stay on topic
  • Connect with each other


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Are You Preparing for the Next Climate Disaster?

Take this week's poll