Ontario hospital workers are set to get additional wage increases over two years, the latest in a series of similar arbitration decisions after the province’s wage-restraint law was found unconstitutional.
An arbitrator has awarded 3.75 per cent and 2.5 per cent for last year and this year to hospital workers such as dietary aides, personal support workers and registered practical nurses on top of the one per cent per year they received under the law known as Bill 124.
That 2019 law limited wage increases for broader public sector workers to one per cent a year for three years, but was declared unconstitutional late last year by an Ontario court.
The government has appealed that ruling, with hearings set for later this month, but in the meantime, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the SEIU Healthcare union are the latest of those affected by the law to have successfully argued in arbitration for more money.
Arbitrator William Kaplan said in a decision this week that the best comparators for wage increases that would have been freely collectively bargained during the 2022 and 2023 time period are the 4.75 per cent and 3.5 per cent, respectively, that both Ontario power workers and federal public service employees achieved.
Kaplan also awarded an additional $2 to the predominant hourly rate for registered practical nurses and increases to shift and weekend premiums as well as some benefits. Registered nurses, who got pay boosts in a separate decision, were not included in the latest arbitration decision.
Increases in compensation should help with the recruitment and retention “crisis” in Ontario’s hospitals, the arbitrator wrote.
“Wage increases can reasonably be expected to keep people in the workforce, attract people who have left to return, and incentivize future employees,” Kaplan wrote.
“There is no reason we can think of, why members of the unions — who are generally speaking, the lowest paid in hospital healthcare — should receive wage increases that do not even come close to restoring lost earning power.”
Some hospitals have been using agency nurses to shore up staffing, paying them double or triple the collective agreement rates “because compensation is a, if not the, key driver in attracting employees,” he wrote.
“The province is offering a buffet of policies and programs — almost all financial in nature — to incentivize employees to careers in healthcare because of its axiomatic conclusion that this approach will work; at least that is the underlying premise,” Kaplan wrote.
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“The participating hospitals suggest that compensation increases will not solve these problems, but this submission fails in a context when many of their members are using financial incentives to attract and retain staff, and the government is adopting and backstopping this same approach.”
Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said the OHA recognizes the enormous value of front-line health-care workers and supports free collective bargaining.
“That said, while collective bargaining is important, there is no one single contributor or solution that will directly overcome the deep-rooted and multi-faceted health human resource challenges facing Ontario’s health care system,” he wrote in a statement.
“It will take a range of diverse strategies and approaches and to that end, the OHA is working very closely with hospitals, the Government of Ontario, Ontario Health, and system partners to develop and implement these lasting solutions.”
Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office in a recent report estimated that similar arbitration rulings in the wake of Bill 124 being found unconstitutional have already cost the province nearly $1 billion in extra health-sector spending.
Hospital RNs secured additional wage increases through arbitration of 0.75 per cent, one per cent and two per cent. Ontario Nurses’ Association members working in the charitable homes sector were awarded an additional 0.75 per cent in each of the three years. Paramedics at the Ornge air ambulance service were awarded an additional one per cent each year for three years.
© 2023 The Canadian Press