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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 | TheTyee.ca

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]

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