TORONTO – Parents in Ontario scrambled Friday to figure out what to do with their kids should the province’s education workers strike next week – a looming question that wouldn’t be answered until the afternoon at the earliest.
Talks between the province and the union representing custodians, clerical workers and early childhood educators were set to resume towards the end of the day, with the workers planning to walk off the job on Monday if no deal is reached – potentially leaving thousands of parents in the lurch.
“I will have to have to skip my school to stay with my daughter,” said Roxana Ichim, a mother of two from Mississauga, Ont., and a marketing student at Sheridan College in neighbouring Oakville.
“I see a lot of activity centres around us saying they are organizing stuff for kids like camps, but I cannot afford to go to that,” said Ichim, who relies on full-day daycare for her 22-month-old as well as before- and after-school care for her kindergarten-aged daughter.
WATCH: Both the province and the union representing 55,000 education workers are back at the table for negotiations. As Erica Vella reports, both parties are hoping for a settlement, but the union has not ruled out strike action that could start on Monday.
Ichim added she was sympathetic to the education workers’ plight, noting she and her daughter rely on the work they do, such as keeping schools clean.
Her daughter’s school board is one of at least two dozen that have said they will have to close if the labour disruption goes ahead, citing concerns for student safety.
The Toronto District School Board – the province’s largest – gave several examples of education workers without whom schools cannot safely operate: office staff who call parents if a student doesn’t show up to class, early childhood educators who provide backup for overburdened kindergarten teachers, and maintenance staff who ensure buildings are in working order.
While the list of boards making plans to close on Monday grows, some school-based daycares have said they’ll remain open but operate as if it’s a professional activity (PA) day – charging parents extra for the additional hours of care. Others will be cancelled along with classes.
Such measures have posed problems for privately operated child-care providers.
“Parents have asked me if I know any babysitters or if I have any extra staff who would be willing to help out,” said Ellana Katzberg, who owns Playcare Early Learning Centre in Vaughan, Ont. “It’s been quite a stressful situation for everybody.”
She said she’ll be working through the weekend to help figure out solutions for her clients’ older kids, including by using online job boards to recruit more help.
The government and school boards have said high rates of worker absenteeism remain unresolved in talks, while the union has said the impact of government cuts on workers must be addressed.
The president of the bargaining unit that represents the 55,000 workers said the union is optimistic they can reach a deal, but important issues remain unresolved.
Laura Walton said the Canadian Union of Public Employees is asking the government to roll back service cuts that she said reduced education workers’ staffing levels.
The Ford government’s attempt to impose a one per cent wage increase will also be the subject of talks, she said.
“We’re talking about people that a one per cent wage increase would be $380 a year,” Walton said. “That is extremely low when you put it into dollars and cents.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Friday the government remains committed to reaching a deal with the union.
“Our government has negotiated in good faith and will continue to do so,” Lecce said in a statement ahead of the resumption of bargaining. “We remain fully committed to resuming discussions with CUPE to reach an agreement quickly to provide predictability to parents and students.”
The government, union and school boards have agreed to a communications blackout during the talks, which were set to get underway at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
Last week, after talks broke down, Ontario’s school boards said they had asked the union for a “modest alteration” to the wages paid to workers on short-term disability, but CUPE has not agreed to any changes.
Board association president Cathy Abraham said in a statement Friday she could not comment on specific issues that are still on the table.
“We believe collective agreements are more successfully reached when bargaining discussions remain at the bargaining table,” she said.
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