NL: Workers say pay increase will avoid skilled labour pinch

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Ashley Fitzpatrick
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The Telegram

Many tradespeople working in the health care system — members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees — say they may move on if the latest call for better wages goes unanswered.

Eastern Health tradespeople held a rally Wednesday at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s to bring attention to what they see as a wage gap between them and similar workers in the private sector. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

[ST. JOHN'S, NL] — Jeffrey McCormack, a journeyman-level plumber working with Eastern Health for about three years, told The Telegram Wednesday he worked two jobs for a time just to make sure he was bringing in enough to support his family.

He was not the only journeyman-level tradesperson at the regional health authority to take a second job, according to comments made at a Wednesday rally.

The rally was held by tradespeople — members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees — working in the health care system.

They gathered outside the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, calling for the provincial government to increase their wages.

When asked why he has bothered to continue at his job with Eastern Health — when he could theoretically make a much higher wage at a non-union job in private industry or as a unionized worker on a large construction project — McCormack responded, “That’s a good question.”

He told The Telegram he has looked at other employment opportunities, here and elsewhere, and will likely move on if the latest call for better wages goes unanswered.

“When I go, my knowledge of not only my plumbing skills but my skills on what’s in the hospital, of the health care system, goes with me,” he said.

About 50 tradespeople — electricians, painters, plumbers — took their lunch breaks to rally alongside McCormack.

The workers said they were highlighting a growing disparity between public- and private-sector pay. For them it was specifically the disparity between tradespeople working inside Eastern Health and those working outside jobs.

They said the wage gap is causing problems with recruitment and retention inside the provincial health care system.

It amounts to one more issue in the growing list of items to be considered under the umbrella of skilled trades in Newfoundland and Labrador.

With the wail of an ambulance siren passing in the background, journeyman carpenter Mark Rice said the skilled trades workers with Eastern Health are now, on average, $8 to $12 per hour behind the pay level of tradespeople in private industry, depending on the trade.

“We’re behind the scenes in there. Nobody sees what we do. We keep all the ORs going. We keep all the sterilizers working, we keep all the T-Bar ceilings in place,” he said.

By not raising wages for the workers, he said the province is failing to recognize the labour injury to come as the older workforce currently dominating jobs at provincial hospitals move into retirement.

“The average age back seven or eight years ago was 54. I think now it’s around 57 or 58 years old,” he said.

“What’s going to happen when all these people retire in one to three years time? We won’t have anybody left to take over when we leave.”

Rice said the issues of wages and recruitment have been before government for 12 years now, so he does not see the Dunderdale administration’s newly announced commitment to financial belt-tightening as an excuse not to address what has been raised.

Electrical foreman Keith Moore said an electrician working at the Health Sciences Centre will make about $23.50 an hour, while the wage “just across the street” at Memorial University of Newfoundland is about $33.

“We work with each other. We do power tests together. Do you think that’s right?”

Journeyman carpenter Tim Ford said there is a difference of more than $15,000 to $25,000 in annual pay from health care trades to private industry jobs.

“If you took my job right now with my years’ experience, which is close to 19, and put me down in the middle of Memorial University, right now I’d be top of my scale. I’d be making $60,000 a year. Right now, I’m barely scraping $43,000,” he said. “It has to be cured.”

Ford said he has been part of the fight for wage parity since at least 1999.

As he spoke with The Telegram at the latest rally, the shouting started up: “What do we want?” and “When do we want it?”

It was Rice who then hopped on the megaphone, facing the crowd of tradesmen. He was followed by NAPE’s Carol Furlong.

Furlong said she sees a “crisis” for tradespeople working with government, particularly as provincial megaprojects come online over the next few years, pulling skilled workers away. If something is not done, she said, “we are going to find ourselves with a major problem down the road.”

The NDP MHA for St. John’s North, Dale Kirby was the only MHA to attend the event. Kirby is the NDP’s critic on Advanced Education and Skills and Labour.

He said the labour shortage being noted in some, not all, trades is one issue for the province. The issue of the health care system losing skilled workers to high wages elsewhere is another.

“I think the workers here are making a good argument,” he said, encouraging the province and Eastern Health to find a way to “get out ahead of” anticipated worker losses.

Organizations: Health Sciences Centre, Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, Memorial University of Newfoundland NDP

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