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Thomas: next budget must ‘rebuild’ Ontario

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas in the Queen's Park media gallery.
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To emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas is urging the Minister of Finance to invest billions more in public services in the 2021/22 budget.

“Decades of cuts have left Ontario defenceless against COVID-19. Those cuts have already cost 5,000 lives,” Thomas told Peter Bethlenfalvy during a virtual presentation on Jan. 25.

“Last year, your government made a commendable first step: a budget with no major cuts to public services or public service workers,” Thomas said. “But no cuts is not enough. Ontarians need – and want – a budget with significant and courageous investment in all our public services.”

During the presentation, Thomas said that all public services are being asked to do too much with too little. But he highlighted the four areas in most urgent need of immediate investment:

  • Immediately and drastically increase the capacity of our health care.
  • Take control of all for-profit long-term care homes.
  • Invest in “built in Ontario” solutions that focus on more research, more manufacturing capacity, and more workers trained by our colleges to address critical staffing shortages.
  • Repeal Bill 124.

Along with his presentation, Thomas also provided the Minister with a written submission urging government to increase public service investment.

“Working together, your government and our members will not only get us through this crisis,” said Thomas. “We will come out of this pandemic stronger than ever.”

Here’s the full text of OPSEU/SEFPO’s written submission on the 2021/22 budget:

OPSEU/SEFPO Submission to the Minister of Finance on the 2021/22 Budget

Ontario is facing an unprecedented crisis of epic proportion.

The solution – in both the short and long term – exists in the know-how, experience, and courage of front-line workers like OPSEU/SEFPO’s 170,000 members. If we invest in front line heroes and the work we do, our province will come back from the pandemic stronger than ever.

For years, our members have been sounding the alarm — years of underinvestment and understaffing have had dire and even fatal consequences.

In the midst of this pandemic, those consequences have become painfully clear.

More than 5,000 dead, 3,000 in long-term care alone. Our second state of emergency in less than a year, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers jobless and thousands of business bankrupt. Hospitals that are, as the Premier says, “on the brink of collapse.”

Our members in health care are not crying wolf, nor were our members in social services, mental health, education, corrections, government services, and the LCBO. Public services across the board are in crisis. Hospitals and Long-Term Care have cracked first because they backstop so many of our other services. [1]

The government made an encouraging first step in addressing the public service crisis in its 2020/21 budget — it was the first budget in decades that did not lay blame or impose large cuts on front line public services or workers.

However, stopping cuts is not enough. To step back from the brink, the government must begin making up for years of chronic underinvestment.

A variety of sources – from RBC [2] to the province’s Financial Accountability Office [3] – show that Ontario currently invests less per person in public services than any other province. The result: Ontario performs worse than all the other provinces on a number of measures, including hospital mortality [4], social and affordable housing wait times [5], and per-student investment in post-secondary education [6].

In the 2021/22 budget, the Ontario government must continue down the new path it forged in last year’s budget and lay out a multi-year plan to aggressively rebuild the capacity of its public services.

Program investment in 2020/21 was $175 billion. In order to bring Ontario’s program per capita program investment to the national average, that investment must increase by between $25 billion to $30 billion in 2021/22 and beyond.

This new investment must be spread across the public service. But to address COVID-related emergencies in the short-term, 2021/22 investment must prioritize the following:

  • Immediately and drastically increasing the capacity of our health care system. The new Cortellucci Vaughan hospital is, by the premier’s notations, the first new hospital to open in three decades. Infrastructure and staffing shortages across the system must be addressed urgently. To avoid needless overspending and ensure accountability, privatization must be eliminated in health care.
  • Taking government control of all for-profit homes in the long-term care system. Three-fifths of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term care – it’s time for government to put people first by entirely removing privatization from the sector.
  • Investing in “built in Ontario” solutions that focus on more research, more manufacturing capacity, and more workers trained quickly and effectively through our colleges. In particular, the colleges must be directed and funded to create accelerated and fully credentialed training programs to address human infrastructure shortages in health care and social services. This investment must fully fund colleges to offer these programs tuition-free.
  • Repealing Bill 124. Besides being unconstitutional, imposing three years of effective wage cuts on front-line public service workers is making critical and essential staffing shortages worse. At the very least, a low-income cut-off (LICO) must be established to exempt low-income workers in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic.

Yes, Ontario is in crisis. But with a commitment to rebuild our long-neglected public services, the government and our front-line public sector workers can lead us out of this crisis better than ever. As always, the leadership and membership of OPSEU/SEFPO is ready and eager to assist. We are all in this together. Let’s work proactively towards a better tomorrow.


Footnotes

[1] According to Canadian Institution of Health Statistics (CIHI) stats compiled by the Ontario Hospital Association, more than 5,000 of Ontario’s 30,000 hospital beds are occupied by people stuck on waiting lists for long term and home care, mental health, and social services. https://www.oha.com/Documents/Ontario%20Hospitals%20-%20Leaders%20in%20Efficiency.pdf

[2] Canadian Federal and Provincial Fiscal Tables, http://www.rbc.com/economics/economic-reports/pdf/canadian-fiscal/prov_fiscal.pdf

[3] Comparing Ontario’s Fiscal Position with Other Provinces, https://www.fao-on.org/en/Blog/Publications/inter-prov-comparisons-feb-2019

[4] Ontario Hospital Association, https://www.oha.com/Documents/Ontario%20Hospitals%20-%20Leaders%20in%20Efficiency.pdf

[5] Statistics Canada, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=4610004201

[6] Canadian Association of University Teachers, https://www.caut.ca/sites/default/files/2.4_provincial_government_funding_per_fte_student_0.xlsx