The union representing lab technicians in Simcoe County is arguing they are not being recognized as essential workers because they are not receiving pandemic pay from the province, and are not getting a vaccine in either Phase 1 or 2 of the province's rollout.
While COVID-19 swabs are only taken at testing sites, LifeLabs is responsible to transport the tests to Toronto. LifeLabs employees administer serology blood tests at some Simcoe County locations for a fee of $75 per test, which are for asymptomatic patients to test for COVID-19 antibodies.
Renée Aiken Kearsley is president of OPSEU 389, the union that represents LifeLabs employees in Simcoe County.
“Many of our staff are put at risk in handling both the swabs from the collecting sites and the blood specimens,” said Kearsley. “They do not consider us essential even though the work we do provides essential services to our communities.”
Kearsley says employees of LifeLabs were not given pandemic pay by their employer. In fact, she says the starting wage for an employee is $17 per hour.
In 2018, a study completed by the County of Simcoe estimated the living wage for a person living in Simcoe County was $18.01 per hour.
“The wage grid at LifeLabs is arbitrary and many of our members, including myself, have been working for the company for many years and are still not at the top,” said Kearsley.
Kearsley says employees were not given any reasoning directly or indirectly from the provincial government as to why lab technicians are not receiving pandemic pay. As of this week, she said no OPSEU 389 members have been offered the vaccine, or have been informed when they will be receiving it.
“Our many requests for vaccine information on the rollout or pandemic pay have fallen to the wayside,” she said. “The employer does not deem us worthy of earning the pandemic pay although our members have been assaulted at sites and wear full personal protective equipment all day, many days working short-staffed.”
She says patient wait times have been as high as three hours at some locations.
Recently, Kearsley says bargaining talks between LifeLabs and its employees have broken down in regards to their next collective agreement.
She says that unless LifeLabs makes OPSEU 389 a reasonable offer to ratify their agreement, as soon as the current state of emergency is lifted they will be putting in notice to strike at all 12 of their locations across Simcoe County.
“Our members are exhausted, underpaid and overworked. We cannot continue working under the conditions that exist,” she said.
Overall, Kearsley says it is the union’s position that anyone who has to stay open to serve the community should be receiving the vaccine.
“Front-line workers in Ontario are exposed, exhausted and see no end in sight without vaccinations. Many people pass through our doors and we cannot refuse COVID-19-positive patients,” she said.
According to LifeLabs, when the provincial government announced pandemic pay last year, they were told LifeLabs employees were not eligible for the program.
“LifeLabs, at the time, could not provide pandemic pay,” Roy Saad, manager of communications with LifeLabs, said on Monday. “We have continued to advocate for the inclusion of medical lab employees in the provincial pandemic pay eligibility and work with industry advocacy bodies to advance these efforts.”
While Saad confirmed LifeLabs employees are currently not getting vaccinated, he indicated Ontario Health has confirmed that LifeLabs' team members would be included in the primary priority group under the laboratory services category during the phased approach to vaccinations.
“LifeLabs continues to work with local officials to determine the next steps and support team members who choose to receive a vaccine,” he said.
In regards to union contract negotiations, Saad said LifeLabs prides itself in providing a fair bargaining process.
“All LifeLabs team members are provided with a competitive total compensation package among community labs that includes fair and competitive compensation, a comprehensive benefits package, and a robust retirement savings plan, among other perks,” he said. “We will continue to pursue a positive and constructive dialogue between all parties.”
The Ministry of Health did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.