Ontario sick-days deal softens blow to younger teachers

The Globe and Mail

Liz Sandals speaks to the media following the swearing in of Kathleen Wynne as Ontario's first female premier, on Feb. 11, 2013. Ms. Sandals has been named the province’s Education Minister amid a protracted dispute between the provincial government and teachers. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

A tentative deal struck between the Ontario government and public school teachers promises a better payout for younger teachers who lost their banked sick days when the Ontario government imposed the terms of their contracts.

The deal would give teachers who have less than 10 years of classroom experience 25 cents on every dollar, rather than just 10 cents, for unused sick days that were wiped out under the terms of Bill 115. For teachers with nine years of experience who had banked most of their sick days, the change would mean a one-time payout this spring that could reach about $3,000, rather than $1,200.

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Under previous contracts at some school boards, teachers could bank unused sick days for a cash payout of up to about $45,000 on retirement.

Education Minister Liz Sandals said the cost of the payout would be covered by higher-than-projected savings generated by the contract terms imposed through Bill 115 this school year.

“It doesn’t cost the taxpayer any more money than it cost before,” she said. “We realized more savings than we anticipated and reallocated some of that money.”

The tentative deal was reached with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), but a clause in the existing contracts would ensure other unions would also be eligible for any term improvements.

Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod raised concerns about the cost of the payout, which she estimated at as much as $63-million.

“This is especially disappointing given Ms. Wynne had assured both parents and MPPs that she would not reopen contracts and that ‘there was no new money’ for wage increases or enhanced benefits,” she wrote in a letter to Ms. Sandals.

The Ontario College of Teachers estimates that about 40,000 of the province’s teachers have less than 10 years of experience and would be eligible for the payout. The increased cost would range from $0 to a maximum of about $1,800 per teacher, suggesting Ms. MacLeod’s estimate is likely high.

Leaders from OSSTF will meet on Thursday to discuss the tentative deal.

Pressure has been mounting on union leaders to reach an agreement as public sentiment turned against teachers and Ontario families considered moving their children to the Catholic and private school systems, where teachers’ protests have not disrupted extra-curricular activities such as clubs and sports teams.

Both OSSTF and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) advised their members in recent weeks to resume leading extracurricular activities based on the progress made in their negotiations with Ontario’s new leadership under Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Younger teachers were especially hard hit by the terms of Bill 115, which protected the sick days of only those with 10 years of classroom experience or more, while those with fewer than 10 years lost any of the unused sick days they had banked.

The tentative deal with OSSTF was reached over the weekend. Talks are ongoing with the union for elementary teachers. Union leaders last week advised members to restore extracurricular activities in time for the spring sports season, Grade 8 graduations and end-of-year field trips.

Teachers began political protests in September when the Liberal government introduced legislation that dictated the terms of their contracts. Teachers stopped voluntary activities such as leading clubs or sports teams and offering extra help after school.

The Ontario Liberals chose a new leader in January, and talks between both unions and the government resumed under the new Premier. Those talks have focused on protecting teachers’ bargaining rights by revamping, and possibly legislating, the negotiations process.

With a report from Adam Radwanski

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