How COVID is altering native unionized health-care employees’ labour pacts – The London Free Press

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‘The pandemic really was a push for those added supports’

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Nurses at a London long-term care home have ratified a new labour pact providing mental health benefits for the first time ever, a direct result of pandemic stress on the workforce, their union says.

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CLAC Local 303, representing registered nurses at Chartwell London LTC, pushed for mental health benefits in its latest round of negotiations after feedback from its members.

“The pandemic definitely highlighted the importance of mental health support. That’s not something we had in previous contracts,” said union representative Mary Ellen Alward. “Mental health is something that we have more recently tried to get into our contracts. The pandemic really was a push for those added supports.”

Members at the north London care home are covered for up to $800 a year for therapy by a psychologist, psychotherapist or social worker – mental health services that are only covered by Ontario’s public health insurance system in certain circumstances.

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The three-year agreement also included an annual wage increase of 1.75 per cent.

While Chartwell London LTC has an employee assistance program for staff, the individual mental health benefits will make a big difference to members, Alward said.

The pandemic has been particularly challenging for long-term care residents and the staff tasked with their care, Alward said.

“Everyone is tired and burnt out,” she said. “The constant changes and uncertainty has definitely taken a toll. . . . We’re hoping we’re moving in the right direction now.”

“It goes without saying” the toll COVID-19 has taken on health care workers over the last two years will loom large in any union’s collective bargaining process, said Steve McCaw, president of Ontario Public Services Employee Union Local 106, which represents just under 1,000 respirologists, technicians, therapists and other health care workers at London Health Sciences Centre.

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The union will be starting collective bargaining centrally and locally in the next few months, McCaw said Sunday.

While he can’t comment on the specific matters in play, McCaw said pandemic-related issues – including workload and mental stress – are likely to be top-of-mind as the negotiations get underway.

Increases to mental health benefits are needed, said James Gibbons, bargaining unit president of Ontario Nurses Association Local 100, which represents more than 3,200 nurses at LHSC. The benefits are negotiated through central bargaining and, in previous years, the union sends a survey to members to see what their most pressing issues are, Gibbons said.

CLAC Local 303 is not the first union to build enhanced mental health supports into its pandemic-era collective agreements.

In late January, members of United Nurses of Alberta – the union representing more than 30,000 nurses in that province – ratified a new collective agreement that included wage increases and “enhanced psychological and mental health supports.”

The United Nurses of Alberta agreement also gave members a one-time lump sum payment of one per cent for 2021 to recognize nurses’ contributions to the pandemic effort.

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