CUPE workers hold informational picket to protest cost-of-living struggles in Prince Albert

Michael Oleksyn/Daily Herald CUPE 5340 employees and supporters marched on Fourth Avenue as part of an informational picket near Victoria Hospital on Tuesday.

Healthcare workers from CUPE 5340 picketed the Victoria Hospital on Tuesday in the first of several planned information pickets to be held across the province.

CUPE 5430 President Bashir Jalloh said the goal was to raise awareness about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on healthcare workers.

“We are barely hanging on by a thread,” said Jalloh, who has worked as a Nuclear Medicine Technologist at the Pasqua Hospital in Regina for the past 18 years. “It has been quite challenging for the past few years, especially after COVID, because our wages have not been keeping up.”

Jalloh said the cost of living has risen 27 per cent in the last 18 years, but wages have only increased by about 14 per cent.

The union, which represents more than 13,000 health service providers including clerical and technical staff, nursing and maintenance staff, have been without a contract since April 1, 2023. The two sides have been bargaining but Jalloh stated that the employer is proposing a package that is full of concessions and does nothing to enhance wages or working conditions.

The contract expired on March 31, 2023. Jalloh said they’ve been at the bargaining table, but it’s an “extremely slow” process.

CUPE 5430’s recent cost-of-living survey, which the organization published in February, showed that a full 86 per cent of survey respondents said they cut back their grocery budget to make ends meet, while 84 per cent cut back on leisure activities/hobbies, 77 per cent delayed a major purchase, and 73 per cent cancelled or scaled back vacation plans.

“It was startling how our members are surviving,” Jalloh said.

Jalloh said that members are in coping mode and have made adjustments to their lives.

He said he has heard stories of members selling plasma, working multiple jobs and sacrificing other things to make ends meet.

Many of them are also working an “excessive amount of overtime,” he added.

Another issue for the union is recruitment and retention. Jalloh said there were cases where members are leaving the province or going to some other field of work. Jalloh said the provincial government is focusing all its attention on bringing in workers from outside the country.

“That is not sustainable,” he said. “You have to invest in your people. They have just been focused on recruitment, nothing on retention.

“It’s like opening the tap and then not putting anything in the bathtub [to stop the water]. Everything is going through the door.”

Jalloh said the union gave SAHO a three-point plan that involved local recruitment. However, he argued that SAHO is mainly focused on very reactive measures.

He acknowledged the public attention given to the STF and their negotiations He said he did not think the STF’s job action would hurt their bargaining. Jalloh added any attention to any form of the labour movement is a good thing.

“We are all in this together,” he said.

“We wish them the best of luck in terms of what they do, because winning is contagious.”

Two local CUPE members in attendance were Pascale Giroux and Naomi Braaten.

Giroux works as a continuing care aid in Spiritwood and has two young sons. Her husband also works full-time as a manager at the local Co-op. Giroux said that 15 to 20 years ago the family would have been quite comfortable, but now it is all different.

“We can barely scrape by going pay cheque to pay cheque. We are still living, but that’s about it,” she said, adding over the past 15 years, her raises have amounted to approximately $6.90.

She said that in their schedules they have weeks off and she picks up four hours here or eight hours there.

“It takes away from the family time that you should be enjoying with family and it does get you a little bit burnt out. You’re not getting as much of the time off that is needed in between those shifts,” Giroux said.

Braaten works as a pharmacy technician and has been working at Victoria Hospital for nearly 18 years. She and her husband have three kids and face challenges related to everything from daycare to sports. She also has a child nearing post-secondary age and saving can be a challenge.

“You decide what you do and what you buy when you go to the grocery store and wait for deals,” Braaten said.

Despite the challenges, both Giroux and Braaten still love the work. Giroux said that she has wanted to work in healthcare since she was five.

“I still absolutely love my job and I love all of the residents that I come in contact with over the years,” she explained. “That’s why I stay there because I know they’re getting taken care of those 12 hours when I get to work and if I’m gone, then I would feel like I was abandoning the other family that I’ve acquired.”

“I love it,” Braaten added. “I love it.”

CUPE has future information pickets planned for Regina, Estevan, Yorkton, and Weyburn.

“Patients in this province deserve better, so do healthcare workers,” Jalloh said.

In a statement released Feb. 9, SAHO said they have bargaining sessions scheduled for March 19-21 in Regina.

In the statement, SAHO said the meetings were meaningful and positive.

“SAHO remains committed to a fair and productive bargaining process with the intent to ensure all employees in over 300 classifications covered by the three (3) provider union collective agreements have equitable opportunities and maintain the internal equity that is a hallmark of previous agreements,” reads the statement. “The SAHO Bargaining Committee continues to work towards common solutions to common issues while maintaining the integrity of the collective agreements.”