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Community living workers picket for better wages

Wednesday’s 24-hour job action involved workers from 10 different unions that make up the Community Social Services Union Bargaining Association. Community living workers from various unions that include CUPE, BCGEU and HEU strike outside the Richmond Caring Place in Richmond, British Columbia, Wednesday, January 30, 2013. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

More than 3,000 community living workers who provide care to B.C.'s developmentally disabled picketed outside social-service centres across the province on Wednesday, rallying against wages that make them the lowest paid in the public sector.

Louella Vincent and Sue Munn are two of the workers who hoisted picket signs outside Richmond Caring Place on Wednesday. Both day-program employees said they have worked second jobs to supplement their income.

"Very few of us own homes; very few of us own vehicles," said Ms. Vincent. "There's just not enough money to live."

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Ms. Munn, who works as a rehabilitation assistant for people with brain injuries, said she eventually had to quit her second job at a group home.

"I was ready to collapse," she said, describing the 31/2 years she spent managing 60-hour work weeks.

The 24-hour job action involved workers from 10 different unions that make up the Community Social Services Union Bargaining Association (CSSBA). The two largest unions in the association are the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. The workers' contract with the Community Social Services Employers' Association (CSSEA) expired at the end of March, 2012. Talks are ongoing.

"You've lost a lot of ground over the past 10 years," said Alanna Hendren, executive director of the Developmental Disabilities Association (DDA), to striking workers gathered outside her organization in Richmond.

"You were paid $16.83 an hour to start in 2002, but today's start rate is only $15.54 per hour," Ms. Hendren added. "There are employment specialists at DDA now making less money than the individuals with developmental disabilities for who they are finding work. This is no way to attract and retain an impassioned, competent work force, regardless of how dedicated and selfless they might be."

Although contract negotiations are between the CSSBA and the CSSEA, picketers said their employer is not the target.

"It's the government who's not listening to us," said David Huespe, a day-program employee who also participates in bargaining talks.

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CSSEA receives funding from the provincial Crown agency Community Living BC, which is responsible for providing care to developmentally disabled adults.

Because of the government's so-called co-operative gains mandate, the only way CSSEA can offer a wage increase is if savings are found elsewhere in the existing budget.

"No monetary offer [has been] made" by CSSEA, wrote BCGEU communications officer Oliver Rohlfs in an e-mail. Future job action, Mr. Rohlfs added, cannot be ruled out if the "government doesn't listen."

The province did not respond to a request for comment.

MLA Nicholas Simons, the NDP's critic for Community Living BC, said he has been approached by community social-services workers who say they can barely raise their families on their current wages.

The case should be "made to the public that we need to [raise wages] before we support [partisan political] advertising campaigns," said Mr. Simons, arguing that the government's priorities are incorrect.

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Further 24-hour strikes by community living workers are scheduled for Thursday in Victoria, Kamloops, Vanderhoof, Trail, Castlegar, Salmon Arm and Creston, and on Friday in Cranbrook.

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