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Client well-being on the minds of locked out workers

The CMHA Cochrane-Timiskaming district and OPSEU/SEFPO have yet to get back to the bargaining table
Maggie Wakeford and Kelly Brunet walk the picket line in front of the CMHA offices on Second Ave. in Timmins.

Locked-out workers want to get back on the job and help those in need of mental health support.

Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Cochrane-Timiskaming district workers have started their third week of the lockout after being without a contract for almost a year. The dispute centres on the proposed staff cost for a new pension plan.

There are 147 people locked out of CMHA offices in Timmins, Cochrane, Iroquois Falls, Matheson, Kirkland Lake, and New Liskeard.

“We’ve had a lot of clients come to our line, so we definitely hear how that’s affecting them,” said Kelly Brunet, the OPSEU/SEFPO Local 631 communications steward, who has been an addiction and mental health worker for 29 years. “They are struggling, and they are finding it not as easy to get the support that the management and the employer is offering during our absence. It’s just not enough.”

Maggie Wakeford, OPSEU/SEFPO Local 631 president, said that the ball is in CMHA’s court has extended an offer to negotiate again and conversations are starting to take place.

“We would love to come back to the table,” said Wakeford. “We have to start rebuilding a relationship. We need to start regaining some respect on both sides.”

CMHA executive director Paul Jalbert said that communication lines are opening, but no dates are set for continued negotiations.

“This is really kind of the beginning, and we have to talk to each other in order to get through this,” he said. “As of this moment, we don’t have another bargaining day scheduled, but I am optimistic in that regard.”

There have been some incidents on the picket line.

After an anonymous noise complaint about the volume level of music, Timmins Police Services issued a $150 ticket to OPSEU/SEFPO’s vice president on Thursday, Feb. 22. Police also issued a verbal warning not to let things get too loud again.

The union has stated it will be covering the cost of the ticket.

As the lockout continues, workers are concerned with their clients’ well-being.

“They’re not getting the support they need,” said Brunet. “One individual came back to our line and said that he had trouble with literacy, so he couldn’t read the pamphlet he was given. Another individual was given an option that doesn’t work for him, so unfortunately, the support isn’t being offered to them.”

CMHA offers services like addiction support and counselling, housing services, and mental health supports, including for those with dementia, psychosis, anxiety, and depression.

Those services can be life-saving for many, and workers are concerned that clients may suffer relapses or worse.

“It’s very, very difficult,” she said. “We want to get back to supporting them, getting the support that they require. Some individuals may have relapsed with their addictions, some have become homeless, so we want to get back to that.”

Jalbert said the lockout has limited CMHA services.

“We’ve had to prioritize which clients are at the top of the list in terms of support,” he said. 

Politicians have been speaking out about the lockout.

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus posted his support for workers on Facebook

“I am calling on the Cochrane Temiskaming CHMA to end the lockout of 147 mental health workers and immediately return to the table. These workers provide important support to vulnerable populations in our region,” he said in the post. “Their fight for fair pensions is a just fight.”

Mayor Michelle Boileau has also shared her take online.

“I have remained silent on this issue because I don't believe that it's the role of politicians to get involved in negotiations between employees and their employer. I apologize if this was perceived as a lack of support,” she wrote on Facebook. “I truly hope that both parties will get back to the bargaining table ASAP so a good deal can be reached for the workers who make a difference in the lives of so many when they need it the most.”

Wakeford said the support they’ve received from the community and several local businesses during the lock-out has strengthened their resolve.

 “People need money in their pocket today. With the cost of living right now, people are barely getting by,” she said. “They’re behind us. The community has been out here supporting us.”

Jalbert said that walk-in and phone-in help is still available through CMHA offices.

“Don’t suffer alone,” he said. “If you need help, please don’t suffer alone.”

Amanda Rabski-McColl, LJI Reporter

About the Author: Amanda Rabski-McColl, LJI Reporter

Amanda Rabski-McColl is a Diversity Reporter under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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