Arbitrator overrules 'unfair' Ontario wage freeze

Unfair and unreasonable is what a respected Ontario arbitrator calls the Queen's Park demand for a province-wide wage freeze.

In a legally-binding decision, Ontario Arbitrator Norm Jesin denied a request from for-profit long-term care homes to impose a freeze on low-paid caregivers in nursing homes. A freeze would have worsened shortages of nurses and key frontline healthcare workers.

"The arbitrator has strove to be reasonable and even-handed in his ruling," said Sharleen Stewart, head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents about 50,000 healthcare workers in Ontario, in a recent release.

"The province's call for restraint has been heard, but it has been balanced with fairness and the need to protect frontline services," she added.

The independent arbitrator carefully weighed evidence provided by the province but definitively rejected the government's case for targeting over-stretched frontline staff at a time when corporate taxes are being reduced.

"I cannot accept that compensation should be frozen because of the budget," the arbitrator said in the ruling.

The decision sets a precedent for a long queue of similar cases and is effective immediately for caregivers at about 100 nursing homes in the province who will get normal increases in line with inflation.

"SEIU has proposed innovative alternative ways to make sure we get the best value out of investments in healthcare. We look forward to working with the province to improve quality of care for patients and deliver value-for-money for Ontarians," said Stewart.

The ruling comes after Ontario Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan publicly acknowledged that nursing home workers who were concerned about the fairness of the policy had "a very valid point."

The provincial government is expected to proceed with plans to ask executives at for-profit nursing homes to cap managers' compensation and freeze or suspend payouts to shareholders for two years so those funds can be invested in frontline care.

The ruling by the independent arbitrator is consistent with a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2007 that struck down legislation with a similar intent that was introduced by the government of British Columbia.

The Supreme Court decision established that the right to free association and collective bargaining were protected under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedom and had been violated by the provincial legislation.

The independent arbitrator was appointed under a provincial law that establishes an arms-length process for reaching fair and equitable decisions in labour disputes consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.