Earlier this week, for the second time in two years, the union representing more than 4,100 nursing home workers in New Brunswick reached a tentative agreement with the employers. Now it is up to the workers to decide if this new agreement puts enough value on their work caring for the most vulnerable seniors in the province.
In May 2018, the workers rejected the last tentative agreement presented to them by the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions (NBCNHU) represented by CUPE – the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Their current collective agreement expired in October 2016.
Yesterday, CUPE’s Sharon Teare, President of the NBCNHU and herself a nursing home worker, noted that “of course, this deal is ‘tentative’ because the nursing home members have the final say on it.” Her members are practical nurses, resident attendants, dietary and laundry workers and clerical workers in nursing homes across New Brunswick.
The NBCNHU brings together 51 individual union locals in different nursing homes. Each nursing home is a separate employer that bargains collectively with the NBCNHU. However, the provincial government calls the shots because it funds the package of wages and working conditions.
Now that a tentative agreement has been reached, the next step is for every one of the 51 union locals to hold a membership meeting, virtually or in person where feasible. CUPE is not releasing details of the tentative deal until all 51 meetings have been held and its members have had the opportunity to have their questions answered.
Members will then be able to vote on the deal in a secret ballot.
For four decades, nursing home workers in New Brunswick have been struggling to secure an agreement that gives them fair compensation and working conditions, including enough hands-on time with the seniors in their care.
In early March this year, the NB Media Co-op interviewed Sharon Teare about the history of the struggle of nursing home workers in the province. At that point, before the pandemic reached New Brunswick, the sector was already in crisis.
“Over the years, I feel that governments have failed to address the crisis even with all the information that has been provided to them and as a result we’re here now with our current working conditions that have led to this situation: we’re not monetarily being compensated for the work that is being done. The work is taking such a physical, emotional and mental drain on everyone,” said Teare at the time.
Since then, the COVID-19 crisis hit, and workers on the front line in nursing homes across New Brunswick have been facing the fear of the unknown. Across Canada, more than three-quarters of the deaths due to the pandemic have occurred in nursing homes and care homes for seniors.
Most of the seniors living in these facilities, and most of the workers caring for them, are women. During the pandemic the workers have been struggling with the potential danger they were exposed to at work, and the impact of their work environment on their loved ones at home. In this predominately female sector many struggle with childcare and the added cost of emotional and financial stress.
“Bargaining was difficult long before the COVID crisis,” Teare said yesterday. “I will not forget the severe restrictions imposed by government on the nursing home bargaining process, with no real right to strike for essential workers and the impossibility to obtain unrestricted binding arbitration,” she added.
Teare recognizes that the tentative new deal does not solve all the issues faced by nursing home workers. She hopes the upcoming vote has a clear outcome. “It must be either accepted or rejected by the membership. We can’t be in the mushy middle and divided during this crisis,” she concluded.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.