Community Living workers across B.C. start rotating strikes Wednesday to protest what they say is chronic under-funding, but their job action isn't focused only on wages.
More than 3,300 members of the BCGEU who support developmentally disabled adults, children infants and their families, are set to join in the action.
The BCGEU says more than 40 per cent of those members have been forced to cut services to their clients due to budget restraint.
Today's 24-hour job action will affect agencies in the Lower Mainland as well as Prince George. On Thursday, workers will picket Kamloops Society for Community Living, Prima Enterprises and Interior Community Services as the action expands.
"In Kamloops, there are about 120 members affected," said Oliver Rohlfs, union spokesman. "We are maintaining essential service levels so that the health, safety and security of clients is assured."
At the same time, the workers are responsible for a full scope of care and support for persons with developmental disabilities, so participation in the action will be limited.
"The issue behind it isn't just funding for us, but funding for the individuals we support," said Angela Reed, a community support worker with Prima in Kamloops. "A lot of that has been cut."
Reed said she knows of local community living workers who rely on the food bank in order to feed their families.
"The bottom line is that we'd like to get back to bargaining," Reed said. The two sides haven't met since last fall.
"We enjoy working with people, but many of us can't make ends meet," said Patsy Harmston, BCGEU community services chairwoman. "Starting wages are $15 an hour, a dollar less than 10 years ago. Many of us have had to take on second jobs or are having to leave the work we love."
The starting wage, $16.83 in 2002, now is $15.84 while inflation has added more than 18 per cent to the cost of living. Their contract expired in March of 2012.
Some employers have been skipping the first pay level in the wage grid in a bid to retain staff since recruitment and retention have become difficult, the union said.
The workers were part of wider BCGEU strike action last fall.
In July, community living advocates renewed a call for an independent public inquiry into what they feel are chronic problems in B.C.'s system of supporting developmentally disabled adults and their families.
Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion B.C. (formerly B.C. Association of Community Living), still believes an inquiry is needed for a broader examination of the system. Wages in the sector have long been a problem, she noted.
"I think it's a chronic issue here in B.C. especially," Bodnar said. "This sector is not a priority when it comes to patterns of support."
Workers often leave to obtain better-paying jobs in health and education, leading to a loss of skills and experience in supporting clients, she noted.
"We're speaking about the most vulnerable people in society."
Community Living B.C., the Crown agency that provides services to the developmentally disabled, sparked controversy last year for paying executives $300,000-a-year incentive bonuses in the midst of program cuts and group home closures.
Last week, the government updated its 12-point plan to improve services and announced a new whistleblower policy for those who report abuses against clients.
Still, families are frustrated by a lack of progress, said Anita Dadson of the B.C. Community Living Action Group.
"I guess a lot of us are very discouraged. It's all talk and very little action."