On 3 June 2011, an arbitration panel handed down the new contract for the majority of Ontario hospital nurses. The panel was set up when negotiations between the Ontario Hospital Association and the union, the Ontario Nurses’ Association broke down. This is a pretty routine procedure when the union contract comes up for renewal, because in Ontario, nurses are considered “essential workers” and don’t have the right to strike. I’m fairly sure this wouldn’t interest many or even most of my readers — even nurses — except for a obnoxious new contract clause, buried deep in the arbitration award:
Effective April 1, 2011, no sick pay benefit is payable under HOODIP for the first fifteen (15) hours of absence for the sixth (6th) and subsequent period(s) of absence in the same fiscal year (April 1st through March 31st).
English translation: if you have six or more absences because of illness (as opposed to days, it must be noted), your employer will punish you for being sick by docking you fifteen hours of sick pay for each absence.
It is true that nurses have among the highest absentee rate among any employee group, and this clause is an attempt to remediate the situation. It is also true that high absenteeism is for reasons unique to nursing. These are the smartly dressed white elephants you see standing in the corner that the hospitals and the union both ignore: we’re exposed to infectious disease, high stress levels, poor morale and horrendous working conditions. We all know about it, and nothing is ever done but pass the blame to nurses. I can’t see how punishing nurses for factors out of their control is even remotely helpful. It’s a little like starving a child, then beating her when she takes a bite of cake.
Even aside from these generic issues, one can easily see circumstances where the heartlessness of this clause will affect individual nurses. Supposing you had an illness which required specialized treatment over a period of time, such as chemotherapy, which required you to take an occasional sick day. According to the union and the hospitals, too bad for you. We are now, they are saying, going to flog you financially for contracting cancer.
The union will probably say, “Well, it was an arbitrator’s award, it was out of our hands.” This only partly true, at best. The arbitration panel doesn’t pick contract language out of thin air. Both the hospitals and the union make submissions in the arbitration process based on their bargaining positions. Clearly, this little piece of horizontal violence was on the table beforehand. How vigorously did the union contested the hospital’s position on this at negotiations? Who knows. I respectfully suggest, however, that ONA put this clause at the top of its list when new negotiations start in a couple of years.
Unfortunately, ONA has calculated, probably correctly, that the pushback from front line nurses over this clause will be minimal. We can do very little about it, and in any case, there is a huge disconnect between front line nurses and the union leadership — which you would think would be a cause of concern. In its news release, all ONA could offer was some anodyne mush from ONA’s president, Linda Haslam-Stroud. The bash-the-nurse clause was mentioned not at all. “The agreement,” said Haslam-Stroud, “addresses the priority issues of the front-line registered nurses and allied health professionals – the backbone of health care.”
Uh, huh. How about working with the hospitals to fix some of the root causes of absenteeism, instead of tacitly supporting a policy which punishes them?