Ontario Premier Doug Ford has praised health-care workers over the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling them health-care heroes, but about two dozen of those workers called him out for his actions Wednesday in a rally in front of Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli’s office.
“Is this the way you treat heroes?” Louis Rodrigues asked.
Bill 124, he said, is robbing workers of their hard-earned money, limiting them to one per cent increases each year over a three-year term, while inflation is running at more than six per cent annually.
“We have made sacrifices,” Rodrigues, vice-president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said. “We can’t take vacations. We can’t take days off. We are required to work overtime. We had to sleep in our garages” for fear workers would take the coronavirus home and infect their families.
“Our members deserve better.”
The province introduced Bill 124 in 2019, limiting salary increases, as well as incremental raises to existing and new compensation entitlements, at one per cent each year over three years.
Health-care workers from the city and area and from areas like Kingston, Hamilton and Ottawa descended on Fedeli’s office in the last of a series of protests outside Progressive Conservative MPP’s offices, calling for the provincial government to repeal Bill 124 and allow them to negotiate with the province.
“We are angry,” Henri Giroux, president of the North Bay and District Labour Council, said to cheers and cries of “shame” directed at the province.
Their cheers grew even louder when Giroux promised that “this is the start of the health-care revolution” in Ontario.
Speakers at the rally said they were “sick of Bill 124” and “sick of the way Ford is treating us,” saying that at one time the premier was calling them heroes for stepping up and battling the pandemic, but then denying them basic rights to negotiated deals.
“We want Ford to back up those words and let us negotiate freely,” Dave Tremblay said.
“Inflation is five-and-a-half or six per cent. That doesn’t cut it. We are losing wages” due to inflation and the capped salary increases.
Health-care workers, they said, have been battling for basic personal protective equipment (PPE) since the start of the pandemic, being told they weren’t warranted or weren’t available, and for the workers who have contracted COVID-19 because of working conditions, having to fight for compensation.
Fedeli, in an emailed statement following the rally said a strong nursing workforce “is crucial to supporting the province’s recovery.”
He said the province is offering a $763-million lump sum retention incentive of up to $5,000 per nurse, and that nurses are also receiving pandemic pay, “a nearly $12,000 salary top-up, on average.”
The provincial government, he said, also announced $61 million to support nurses, including $18 million for the Ontario Nursing Graduate Program, which provides full-time salary and benefits for more than 600 nurses “with a focus on recruiting in areas of need such as acute and long-term care,” up to $8 million to add more than 800 nurses to targeted areas of the health system across the province and $35 million to increase enrolment in nursing education programs in publicly assisted colleges and universities.
“Finally, our government has also committed $342 million over five years to strengthen Ontario’s nursing workforce by adding over 5000 new and upskilled registered nurses as well as 8000 personal support workers to critical areas across the province.”
More than 39,000 health-care workers have contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic, Jean-Marc St. Amour, from Hearst, said, and some of those “will never work again” because of the lingering effects of the disease.
At least 24 health-care workers have died of covid, he said.
And although more is known now about how the disease spreads and the measures required to prevent its spread, St. Amour said, the necessary equipment and precautions are still denied to many in the health-care field.
“We are calling on the province . . . to protect health-care workers and ensure everyone is protected.”
“We shouldn’t have to beg for N95 masks,” Kevin Cook said. “Hospital workers have stepped up to this plate. Ford called us heroes, but stripped us of the rights to freely negotiated contracts.
“We have fixed the issue this government made a mess of.”
The province, he said, would never consider treating police officers or firefighters like this, but health-care workers, about 80 per cent of whom are women, seem to be fair game.
“Tell people the truth. Tell them how you really feel about health-care workers,” Cook said.
Rodrigues said if he had the chance to sit down one-on-one with Ford, he would ask the premier to reconsider his actions, particularly around Bill 124.
“I would say ‘please reconsider this,’” Rodrigues said. “He did this at a time when inflation was at one per cent.
“Now, we are bargaining with our cap in our hands.”