127 staff members of Kerry’s Place are now on strike after months of bargaining with the employer. Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local bargaining unit say that the vast majority of workers in the unit are racialized women, and over half of them are working two jobs to make ends meet.
Kerry’s Place provides support to autistic people of many ages, from young adults to seniors. It secures its funding from the provincial Ministry of Health, and has been operating since 1974.
Workers are asking for wage increases above the 1 per cent cap legislated in Bill 124. Their wages were frozen at this level during their last contract. Inflation is currently at 6.9 per cent. Kerry’s Place has not seen new funding increases from the provincial government, which management says is why wage increase offers are low.
According to Ontario’s public Sunshine List, Kerry’s Place CEO Sue VanDevelde-Coke has seen her salary increase from $177,101 to $227,786 since 2017, a 28.6 per cent increase. Regional Executive Director Kelly West’s salary went up 19.3 per cent in the same period, from $108,341 to $129,207.
Workers and SEIU told The Hoser that the executives and CEO Sue VanDevelde-Coke afforded themselves “vacation pay” payouts of over $10,000 each in 2022, between 14 and 20 per cent of their salaries.
Workers are also demanding a return to pre-pandemic working conditions, including the ability to coordinate with management to decide between 7.5 versus 12-hour shifts. With so many workers at Kerry’s Place needing second jobs, they say it is difficult to coordinate their schedules with two employers.
At a vote held earlier this year 100 per cent of the workers voted to authorize a strike. Workers in the unit say this is very significant considering that most of the workers are immigrant women without labour action experience. “[The employer [conveys] that they are ahead of all other organizations and seen as the top dog in this industry. But they’re not the top dog in supporting staff and giving them proper wages. That really hits home to many members,” said Melissa McKenzie, who has worked at Kerry’s Place for 5 years. “This is the reason why we have such a great percentage of strike votes.”
An SEIU press release about the strike reads: “workers have conveyed a sincere disappointment in senior management at Kerry’s Place who do little to address racism directed at the mostly Jamaican and Nigerian-Canadian staff.”
“I came into this field loving what I do. I went to school for this. And now I see what’s going on,” said Andrea Gordon, who has been working at Kerry’s Place for 15 years. Several workers at Kerry’s Place said they are aware that they are paid below the industry average in the disability sector. Like so many healthcare workers, Gordon has seriously considered leaving this profession entirely during the pandemic. Her long-term personal connections with supported persons and staff keep her from leaving.
“There are special circumstances where families will insist that a person saving their family member’s life [stay connected]... But most of the time, we’re here, and that’s our connection with them. Once we go, that connection is lost.”
Negotiations for this contract began in May 2022. Kerry’s Place management held a staff appreciation day in September with hot dogs and ice cream. “We never felt appreciated,” said Gordon, who says she had to call management to get real food brought to the event.
“Everyone is better off,” she said about co-workers who left or lost their jobs during the pandemic, explaining that their working conditions and pay are better at their new jobs and that they face less stress.
There are also demands for respect at work when it comes to accommodations. Many of the workers have families and second jobs. Gordon said in some cases accommodation requests are met with skepticism and even surveillance.
“There’s some managers who have a roster of staff members by looking up their addresses. [They] have driven around to find out what childcare is in their communities,” said Gordon. “They will ask you to contact those set childcare centers and get a letter from the childcare center, that you have no relationship with, to say that you approached them and they indeed have no space.”
Erica Valentine, a 17-year employee of Kerry’s Place, says this is what happened to her when she was seeking childcare. She said this was all done by a new manager who came on while she was on leave, with whom she had no prior relationship. Valentine, like Gordon, will not be driven out of her job because of the relationships she has built with supported people in the community.
“I really love what I do. The end of the day is gratifying,” she said, speaking about community members she works with. “I feel like they’re my family. And that’s how they’re treated. I go above and beyond to ensure that the life they live is enhanced.”
Workers say despite the rewarding relationships, the job takes a mental toll on them, even after retirement. Valentine wants to see good mental health supports in place in the new contract, including a professional on staff in the GTA ready when they are needed. “We want them in the Toronto region, so when we call, someone is ready to say, ‘okay, come meet me at the office, let’s sit down and have a conversation.’”
Valentine said she thought the employer would come out after three years of a pandemic and their wages frozen at 1 per cent with a much stronger contract offer. “I don’t see the urgency, or our employer showing appreciation towards us. We feel like we’ve been bargaining with ourselves for the whole time.”
She added that in her years at Kerry’s Place she hasn’t seen the stress and exodus she sees now. She says she is loyal however, and will not leave. “90 per cent of the work force are immigrants. We’re Black women. We’re mothers. We need to support our family. That’s why we work.”
Kerry’s Place communications staff and management were contacted for this story. Kerry’s Place CEO Sue VanDevelde-Coke responded to an email raising questions about these issues, which included surveillance policies, staff appreciation day, executive vacation pay and more, but did not address the questions.
“I love what I do, but loving what you do is not always going to pay the bills. It’s a sad thing to come to you,” said McKenzie. “But we know the employer can do better. There’s other companies that are doing better. The questions is, why is it that Kerry’s Place does not want to do better?”
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