Update: Monday night a tentative agreement was reached between OPSEU and Frontenac Community Mental Health and Addictions Services. A ratification vote will be taking place next week.
Hopefully Kingston Mayor Mark Gerretsen made some phone calls yesterday.
Having met with unionized staff members from Frontenac Community Mental Health and Addictions Services, he expressed concern about a potential strike tomorrow (Wednesday) that will impact directly upon the municipality and its residents.
The 130 staff of the mental health and addictions agency provide a wide range of services in the Kingston community, including residential and crisis support. At midnight tonight they will be on a legal strike unless a last-minute deal is reached with the assistance of a mediator.
In the absence of the workers it will likely be up to the city’s police and emergency services to do what they can. It’ll cost much more this way, especially for those who wind up at the hospital emergency room.
Each day we are told the crisis line that Frontenac workers operate receive as many as 40 calls a day. This is on top of the 1200 clients that Frontenac routinely serves in the community.
The professional and support staff at the agency have been without a contract since the beginning of April. That’s too long.
With significant cuts happening at the former Kingston psychiatric hospital, the expectation was that Frontenac would be given new resources to deal with the pressures of downloading.
Earlier this year Providence Care said it was eliminating 60 full-time equivalent mental health positions – that translates to somewhere between 80-90 real jobs.
When the news broke, we got the same old line from government politicians about how services were not really being cut, but shifted to the community as part of health care transformation.
So how did that downloading from the hospital convert to front line jobs at Frontenac?
The answer is: it didn’t.
The agency did create two new management positions but lost three front-line workers. This is at an employer that now has a questionable management to staff ratio of about one to six.
If you look at the agency’s base funding from the province (posted on its website), it is actually receiving slightly less, not more.
Preparing for the strike yesterday at the OPSEU Kingston Regional Office, one worker noted that the starting rate for her grid was $8 below her counterparts at other agencies. That’s a big sacrifice to stay at Frontenac.
The staff who work at Frontenac want to get a deal done and get back to the work they love. Because they love their work, they may have to walk a picket line.
The staff is feeling burnout from the stress they have been under. Sick leave is on the rise. As comparatively poor as the pay is, the workers prefer to talk about workload as well as health and safety.
Workload is a major issue – there are simply too many clients for too few workers. That affects quality of care.
This comes during the onset of the holiday season when demand for their services is particularly high.
We have to seriously wonder about where the South East Local Health Integration Network has been as we countdown to a potential strike tomorrow. What kind of planning is it that cuts mental health beds at the hospital then cuts the budget of the agency meant to pick up the pieces?
Looking at the evidence, Kingston residents may very well feel betrayed.
For those who have loved ones with mental illness, they should be holding the province to account for the promises that were never kept. Sixty full-time equivalent mental health jobs were lost in this community and very little was given in return.
We’re told there is an expansion of supportive housing for individuals living with mental illness, but so far there appears to be no front line staff attached to the initiative. When you leave out the “support” from supportive housing, what you’re left with is just housing.
When we spoke to the media yesterday it was evident that despite the enormous role the agency plays in the city, few knew much about Frontenac. This is the first time the agency has faced a strike. If a strike happens, the media will likely learn a lot more — and quickly.
There is certainly more to this fight than another contract at another agency in another Ontario city.
It also sends a clear warning to hospital workers across the province that transformation is not about quality, but how cheap and how few workers you can possibly get away with.
That’s likely not the message Health Minister Deb Matthews would like to send.
But how else could you possibly see it?
Let’s hope that good sense prevails at the bargaining table today.