Health workers at Sarnia’s Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) stopped work on May 1, taking action against a wage freeze by the Ford government, and against an employer who refuses them paid sick leave and decent pay for their dangerous work.

The 23 Registered Practical Nurses (RPNs), who work with high needs patients, have been without a contract since 2019. Over a year on and after two COVID-19 waves, their union says the employer still refuses to pay all of them daily overtime pay, paid sick leave, or decent wages.

Sarnia-Lambton VON nurses earn between $21 and $23.69 an hour. Many are classified as part-time or casual workers. The Sarnia Observer notes VON nurses are paid $8-10 less than RPNs working in hospitals and less than RPNs in for-profit long-term care facilities. Many part-time workers further lack access to benefits, overtime pay and paid sick time—even when they’re working in schools and patients’ homes.

Liuna Local 3000 spokesperson Ken Sharpe told CTV News that VON is subject to Bill 124—Premier Ford’s wage cap legislation, which continues the wage freezes and cuts imposed by past Liberal governments. It restricts any bargaining with teachers, hospital workers, ambulance drivers and more to a maximum increase of one per cent. With inflation averaging two per cent per year, this amounts to an annual pay cut. And, it emboldens employers who are confident the government will step in to roll things back, should negotiations tip in workers’ favour.

In this case, the employer is only offering a lump-sum of about $218 for full-time staff, instead of a wage increase. That’s about 0.5 per cent of earnings—about $4.19 per week.

“Even though VON can give them one per cent total compensation, they’re choosing not to,” Sharpe told the Observer. “Not because they can’t, not because they can’t afford it, not because they don’t want to simply because they don’t want to set the precedent going forward for negotiations in the rest of the province.”

These frontline healthcare workers have been essential to saving lives during the pandemic. But, to the employer and the government, saving lives isn’t apparently essential enough to justify paying them. Unifor, the Ontario Nurses’ Association and others have all denounced the government for freezing health workers’ pay during the pandemic. Ford hasn’t changed his mind.

On April 30, ORNGE Ambulance workers also voted 94 per cent in favor of strike action against the wage freeze. The union is also demanding increased mental health and PTSD coverage. Should ORNGE refuse, the union told Thunder Bay News that it would likely opt to slow training, and vehicle preparation.

Elsewhere, the Ford government is also working to privatize care coordination for homecare across Eastern Ontario. Ford has also recently allowed private companies to perform additional procedures, after months of lobbying by for-profit health companies. Hospitals have also been emboldened to lay off frontline healthcare workers to cut costs throughout the pandemic.

With this government’s support plummeting, these work stoppages can and should be coordinated. Workers across Ontario need to be mobilized to defeat the Ford government’s pay cuts, its attacks on the health system and its attacks on frontline health workers.