Public wage freeze a headache for hospitals
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, February 10, 2011 7:33PM EST
TORONTO - Attempting to impose a two-year wage freeze on one million Ontario public sector workers is creating real pay inequities among front-line health care workers, the Ontario Hospital Association said Thursday.
"We are just trying to really flag this both as to the unfairness but also the affordability," said Tom Closson, the association's president.
The Liberal government announced last year it wanted everyone paid by the Ontario taxpayer to take a two-year wage freeze to help trim a record deficit of nearly $19 billion, but it never introduced legislation to back up the plan.
Non-unionized salaries were frozen immediately, while the government announced there would be no funding for pay hikes for unionized workers for two years after current contracts expire.
That means many unionized public sector workers have been getting pay hikes while their non-unionized counterparts doing the same work, sometimes for the same hospital, are falling behind.
Non-unionized staff make up about 25 per cent of front-line health care workers, said Closson.
"In many cases we have nurses who are non-union, and I'm not sure the government fully appreciated that, and in a few hospitals they have both non-union nurses and union nurses," said Closson.
"We also have some hospitals that are almost fully non-union, like the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, so you can imagine how frustrated their staff are that, at most other hospitals, staff are unionized and are able to get pay increases."
The New Democrats, who oppose the wage freeze, said the Liberal government made "a real mess" of its plan and clearly didn't think it through.
"There's no doubt they were trying to speak out of both sides of their mouth on this one, playing it too cute by half," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"I certainly don't think the government should be looking to freeze wages of nurses while at the same time hospital CEOs are giving themselves six-figure wage increases. Restraint has to happen in a fair way if it's going to happen at all."
The hospital association said some hospitals are seeing increased union drives because workers fear they will never catch up with the pay of their unionized colleagues.
Seventy per cent of hospitals' operating costs are salaries and benefits.
The lack of legislation to support the wage freeze has allowed arbitrators to award many public sector unions wage increases, driving up costs instead of lowering them, added Closson.
"We feel like we're between a rock and a hard place here," he said.
"It's a huge challenge for us both from an affordability point of view and from a fairness point of view. We feel strongly that the government needs to take action and take action right now."
Health Minister Deb Matthews wouldn't address the specific problems caused by the unionized health care workers getting pay hikes while others see their salaries frozen, but said all public sector workers had a duty to help eliminate the deficit.
"Those of us who are paid by taxpayers have been protected from the effects of the recession in a way that those who aren't part of the broader public sector have not been protected," said Matthews.
"I think it's time for those of us who are paid by the taxpayer to go a couple years with no wage increase. I don't think that is too much to ask."
Hospitals will not be given extra money this year to cover salary increases, said Matthews, who promised the government will increase spending on health care as it has every year.
The Progressive Conservatives warned that will force hospitals to reduce services to patients in order to balance their books, and said the Liberals' wage freeze plan "has gone badly off the rails."
However, Matthews insisted her "highest priority" was to protect services for patients.
Municipalities that rely on the Ontario Provincial Police recently complained about a five per cent pay hike given to the force last November, eight months after the wage freeze was announced.