Labour dispute threatens services for deaf community

Employees of Canadian Hearing Society on strike over sick pay, wage issues

It’s a one-stop-shop, offering the full range of essential services to Ontario’s deaf community — a model unique in North America.

But employees at the Canadian Hearing Society, many of whom are deaf themselves, say their essential needs are not being met on the job — pushing them, for the past two weeks, onto the picket line after years of dead-end labour negotiations.

At stake, workers say, is the protection of sick pay and a long overdue wage increase. At risk, management retorts, is the financial viability of the four-decade-old non-profit organization. At a loss, both agree, are thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing clients across the province who rely on the CHS for counseling, employment help, interpretation, hearing aids and communication devices.

“Not only do I work for the organization, I also use the services that it provides,” said Stacey Connor, who is one of CHS’s 227 employees, the president of her local chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and deaf.

“(At CHS) I feel like I’m where I belong. All my life I’ve encountered barriers and frustrations and difficulties. Audism and ableism is what we often encounter out in the world on a daily basis,” she said, referring to discrimination against people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The union and the organization started negotiating three years ago, but talks broke down and workers have not received a wage increase since. While employees have traditionally maintained a “sick bank” that allowed them to carry over unused sick days into the following year, CHS has proposed cutting back to around six paid sick days a year and introducing a short-term disability plan for anything longer.

Gary Malkowski, the vice-president of CHS, told the Star that government funding had flat-lined and donor dollars to non-profit organizations across the province have also dropped, adding that workers’ proposals for improved entitlements on the job would cost CHS millions of dollars and could result in substantial layoffs.

He said CHS had proposed a modest wage increase and that its prospective short-term disability program would “modernize” the organization.“Our offer is fiscally responsible and sustainable,” he said.

Alison Davidson, a negotiator with CUPE, said the union had agreed to wind down the sick bank policy and work toward a short-term sick leave plan — but said the proposal on the table was one of the “worst examples” of such a plan she had ever seen in Ontario.

“Over 90 per cent of our membership are women and so this is having a huge impact on them,” Connor said. “Additionally, the interpreters are subject to physical demands of the work — repetitive strain injuries.”

“Health is impossible to predict,” she added.

It’s the first time CHS workers have ever been on strike, having been unionized since 1943.

The dispute has attracted attention from the Ontario Association of the Deaf, which says it has received “numerous complaints” about disruption to services. In a rare move, the organization’s president George A. Postlethwait Jr. has also taken to social media to voice support for striking workers.

“It is unconscionable for us to watch our deaf community suffer further while seeing a couple of CHS managers who have a huge privilege and have received huge financial raises as posted on the Sunshine List,” he told the Star.

Connor said she and her colleagues were also concerned about the overall direction of CHS, which she says is moving away from a social service organization to a more profit-driven model. Management says its revenue-generating services are essential to fund free programs.

“Nothing has changed from what we’ve always done,” said Malkowski. “We do have to manage the liability and the fiscal responsibility that we have. We have to be creative with our resources.”

As the dispute drags on, Postlethwait says resources for members of the Deaf community are increasingly stretched.

“It’s a heartbreak to see the struggle and the frustration they’re living with without these services,” Connor said. “But I’m experiencing the same frustrations because of the loss of service that I have as well.”


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