Top-up torture

Frontline workers still waiting for Kenney to keep his pandemic pay promise


JASON KENNEY IS IN NO RUSH TO PAY UP. It’s been four months since he promised to top-up frontline workers pay in Alberta. There’s no sign he’ll keep that promise any time soon.

The United Conservatives have done nothing to speed up the process of getting the money into the pockets of health care workers, grocery store clerks, first responders, and other essential workers.

“They don’t care about frontline workers whether they are in education, whether they are in healthcare, whether the folks work in grocery stores,” said CUPE Alberta’s Roy Gil. “All they really care about is making sure their corporate sponsors are taken care of.”

UCP government drags its feet

The Trudeau government announced $3 billion to support pay top-ups for low-paid frontline workers in May. But the program requires cost-sharing agreements between the provinces and the federal government.

The UCP’s first proposal for the pay top-ups was rejected by the federal government, and it took them until the end of August to file a revised plan.

“I’m just shocked at the level of cynicism that this government has shown," says Gil. "Time and time again since this horrible pandemic began, this government has gone as slowly as they can, they’ve been as obstructionist as they can whenever there’s cost-sharing from the federal level.”

“There’s different political ideologies across the country, there’s different types of governments. Alberta is the worst when it comes to talking to unions, when it comes to dealing with working people.”

The Kenney UCP government claims it filed a second proposal with the Trudeau government in late August. But it has been conspicuously tight-lipped about where negotiations with the feds stand.

CBC News has asked the Kenney government on ten separate occasions since May for details on what workers it thinks should get top-up pay, how much pay they should get, and what the overall cost will be. Kenney has failed to reply.

Insult and injury

Some health care workers in private long-term care facilities have already received top-ups under a separate provincial program. But these fall well short of what’s being offered in other provinces.

“The Kenney government likes to say nice things about frontline health care workers during the pandemic response, but their actions don’t match their words,” says AFL (Alberta Federation of Labour)  president Gil McGowan.

“They’re offering smaller top-ups to fewer workers. The whole thing is a disappointing, confusing and insulting mess.”

AFL researchers found that eligibility for the health care worker top-up program was narrower in Alberta than any other province west of Quebec. Whereas most provinces have offered top-ups to a wide range of health care staff, the Kenney government restricted it to health care aids in privately-run facilities.

“This kind of treatment is nothing but a slap in the face,” says worker activist Victor Serge. “It can only add to the stress frontline workers have to carry every day.”

In the Edmonton region, for example, twice as many emergency medical service (EMS) paramedics are on leave now than before the pandemic hit. They look to each other, more than ever, for mutual support.

“We’re all watching each other’s backs and we let each other know who’s getting stressed,” said one paramedic. “I think you got to, you know, touch base with specific individuals because they seem a little more stressed than normal,”

Permanent improvements needed

The pandemic has brought into sharp relief our universal failure to pay and protect frontline workers the way they deserve.

The United Steelworkers Essential Everyday campaign calls for the temporary pay bonuses during the pandemic to be made permanent in Alberta and in every other province and territory across the country.

“These wage increases should apply to all employees involved in providing care,” declares the campaign website. “Furthermore, your work does not stop being essential whenever the pandemic ends, and neither should your pay increase.”

Getting the right-wing Alberta government to pay the bonuses they promised to the thousands of workers who’ve been left waiting for months would be a good step towards doing the right thing for all essential workers.

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