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Gilbert Centre union, board at odds over new pact, HIV drug coverage

'If we are working at an organization that aims to support people living with HIV, shouldn’t our employees living with HIV deserve the same support?' asks union rep
The Gilbert Centre, located at 80 Bradford Street in Barrie.

Workers at the Gilbert Centre in Barrie say they are struggling to secure their first collective agreement after unionizing two years ago, with one of the stumbling blocks being coverage for antiretroviral therapy treatment of HIV.

The organization runs harm reduction services, a support system for people living with AIDS, a warming centre and more from their location at 80 Bradford St., near the city’s downtown core.

The Gilbert Centre started out helping people with HIV and AIDS, later expanding to offer services to people in the LGBTQ2+ community, along with other vulnerable groups in the region.

Its 30 employees joined the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in 2022.

“They unionized amidst an abusive work culture and have focused their first collective agreement on overtime rights, better wages, improved benefits, and layoff and recall language,” union representative Jesse Mintz said in a statement.

“The board became aware of allegations of abusive work culture during the bargaining process,” Jessica Mor, chair of the Gilbert Centre's board of directors, told BarrieToday. “Since then, there has been a significant change in leadership at the Gilbert Centre."

“With oversight from the board and in collaboration with staff, new management has been working diligently to address the workplace culture," Mor added. "Though our work on this front continues, we have received positive feedback from staff and community stakeholders that the changes the Gilbert Centre has already made have fostered a more respectful and positive work environment.”

Rebecca Madrid, an office administrator and vice-president of the unionized group, said there has been some headway.

“We have a new executive director who was brought on to solve problems. We unionized to solve problems. We should be working together to chart a path forward, but the board of directors has fought us at every turn,” Madrid said in the union's release. 

“Many of my co-workers come from the communities we serve," Madrid added. "We’ve lived through these systems, and we are fighting to build something better. This isn’t just a job for us. We are a community service, but our board sees this as a business, and they’d be happy to turn their back on the most marginalized."

The Gilbert Centre is a not-for-profit charitable organization relying on funding from a variety of sources.

“One of the biggest fights at the table right now is for some sort of layoff and recall language that would offer our members the opportunity to be first-call if funding returns, and would offer them some maintenance of seniority, and other benefits in lapses between contracts,” Madrid told BarrieToday in a telephone interview. 

“We currently run the daytime warming centre, which is funded by the county, and previously we ran the cooling centre over the summer,” Madrid added.

With gaps between the two contracts of up to six weeks, the union says it wants to see some sort of security for their contracted staff so they could have employment stability.

The group is also battling their employer at the negotiating table over a claim they are “refusing to expand employee benefits to cover the costs of antiretroviral therapy treatment,” the union says of HIV treatment.

“Gilbert Centre is an AIDS service organization with a mandate to provide social supports and health services for people living with HIV, but employees themselves are not supported,” the union says.

The Gilbert Centre insists they have not refused to expand employee benefits to cover the costs of antiretroviral therapy treatment, according to Mor.

“The union has requested the Gilbert Centre cover 100 per cent of the cost of HIV medication. This is not what our current health benefits plan provides, and we have come to learn that increasing our health insurance plan to accommodate this coverage would be prohibitively expensive for the centre,” she said.

“Instead, the Gilbert Centre has proposed a discretionary health-care spending account for each employee that goes above and beyond our current benefits plan, up to a certain maximum each year," Mor added. "We are still negotiating this term with the union and intend on doing so in good faith and in line with our core values.”

In response, Madrid said the group has no coverage in regards to antiretroviral therapy treatment of HIV.

“At the table, we have effectively been told there are other avenues for that. There are other governmental supports for that, so our staff would just need to apply for those things,” Madrid said.

“And we recognize the ongoing and immense cost of medication like that, and what a difference they can make in someone’s life. A lack of access to them is so detrimental,” Madrid added. “If we are working at an organization that aims to support people living with HIV, shouldn’t our employees living with HIV deserve the same support?”

After two years, negotiations continue. The two sides are set to return to the negotiating table Thursday, Feb. 29.

The roughly 30 CUPE members in the group held a strike vote last week “with every vote cast in support of strike action,” the union said.

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About the Author: Kevin Lamb

Kevin Lamb picked up a camera in 2000 and by 2005 was freelancing for the Barrie Examiner newspaper until its closure in 2017. He is an award-winning photojournalist, with his work having been seen in many news outlets across Canada and internationally
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