More than 60,000 British Columbian health-care workers have struck a deal with the provincial government, making them the first major group of public sector employees to ratify an agreement in a flurry of bargaining.
Members of the Facilities Bargaining Association — a multi-union group that includes care aides, diagnostic staff, hospital porters and more — voted 64 per cent to accept a three-year deal that will see a double-digit percentage increase to wages by 2025. The agreement also includes a cost-of-living clause that provides greater increases in the second and third years if inflation exceeds set levels.
The Hospital Employees' Union, which represents more than 90 per cent of those workers, acknowledges the results show many members wanted and expected more.
“Health-care workers told us they’re burnt out, they’re understaffed and they’re having a hard time making ends meet,” secretary-business manager Meena Brisard said.
The agreement includes salary increases well above the association’s last two deals with the government.
The contract, which is retroactive to April 1, provides a 25-cent hourly increase in Year One, plus a 3.24-per-cent increase. The 25-cent increase will provide the greatest percentage benefits to low-paid workers. The union says that will equal a combined 4.24-per-cent increase for the majority of workers.
In Year Two, wages will increase at least 5.5 per cent and up to 6.75 per cent based on the cost of living adjustment formula. In Year Three, wages will increase by at least two per cent and up to three per cent based on the inflation rate.
The union says the contract also contains language to prevent arbitrary shift assignments and to help address a growing staff shortage in all corners of the health-care system.
The Hospital Employees’ Union leadership had endorsed it as a “historic” deal and urged members to pass it.
“It’s one of the best ratified agreements across this country,” Brisard said.
But 36 per cent of association members still voted against the contract, some because they believed its salary provisions were not high enough to insulate them from the rising cost of living.
Others wanted the union to push for a higher increase to make up for pay cuts they took under the BC Liberals, who used legislation to slash salaries of many HEU members in 2004.
One HEU member who asked not to be identified told The Tyee prior to the results being announced that they would vote against the contract. They argued the COVID-19 pandemic, when health-care workers were heralded as heroes and risked their lives at their jobs, should have given the union more leverage at the bargaining table.
“I don’t know a single person in my unit who will vote for this agreement,” they said.
John Calvert, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University specializing in public policy in the health-care sector, believes the vote reflects discontent among health-care employees who suffered numerous setbacks under previous governments.
Under the BC Liberals, for example, staff for many care homes and other facilities were moved into the private sector and lost union representation. The new agreement, for example, contains a commitment to bring certain contracted workers in the Fraser Health region back into the union fold.
“HEU has, in a sense, been recovering from much of the damage that was done to its membership over the years,” Calvert said. But he said many members likely remain frustrated change has not come faster, even before the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The workers in HEU have been really, really under the gun during COVID,” Calvert said.
A poll commissioned by the Hospital Employees' Union earlier this year found more than 34 per cent of 800 surveyed members said they were likely to leave the health-care profession in the next two years. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said their workloads had increased over the course of the pandemic and more than a quarter said they were struggling to afford housing in B.C.’s hot market.
There is also evidence the pandemic and other stresses had a direct impact on employees’ health. WorkSafeBC received 2,576 mental health disorder claims from workers in health care and social services in 2021, a 30-per-cent jump from the year prior.
Brisard said she heard those frustrations loud and clear while touring the province to encourage members to vote for the deal.
She said the results should be a signal to government that problems of workload, compensation and mental health support in the workplace should be addressed quickly.
“We need to keep the trained workers in the system and attract new ones. This starts with better wages and working conditions,” Brisard said.
In a prepared statement, Finance Minister Selina Robinson said the deal was “fair and reasonable” and that it included “important items to respond to the challenges we’re facing in our health-care system right now and improve working conditions and care for people.”
The HEU is the first of B.C.’s major public sector unions to ratify a new deal. The province bargains with its workers under a centralized mandate, meaning each broad set of employees can expect a similar bargain. The BC General Employees' Union, whose public bargaining unit includes more than 30,000 people, will announce the results of its ratification vote Monday.
And the BC Nurses’ Union met in Vancouver earlier this month to elect the committee that will bargain with the province. They also took to the streets, marching through the city’s downtown.
In a brief media scrum outside the Vancouver Convention Centre, president Aman Grewal wouldn’t comment then on the tentative agreements struck by HEU and BCGEU but acknowledged they “set the standard.”
“We know the cost of living has gone up so high with inflation. We need to keep up with that,” Grewal said on Oct. 5.
“This is action for them to know that we mean business.”