‘It’s created a structural problem’: hundreds of regional government staff quitting ahead of Peel’s dissolution
“It’s created a structural problem, unwittingly so,” Regional Chair Nando Iannicca admitted during a Region of Peel council meeting on October 12, addressing the clearly chaotic dilemma of trying to run a massive municipal government while staff flood out the doors ahead of its looming dissolution in just over a year.
The end of Peel has created an atmosphere of stress and anxiety for staff, something leadership has acknowledged as the PC government’s plan to break apart the Region continues to move forward with few details about how services, assets and jobs will be divided among the three municipalities set to gain their independence.
Recognition over the last few months of the inevitable staffing challenges has contrasted the Region’s outward messaging in the early days following the dissolution announcement, when leadership claimed all was well. But the “business as usual” façade presented as recently as June revealed obvious concerns, with acknowledgments of “significant” and “complex” organizational challenges ahead of 2025, when the provincial government wants the transition from the regional system completed.
As the provincially appointed Transition Board works to dismantle the Region in 14 months, staff employed by the upper-tier municipality are worried their jobs and the services they provide to residents will not be protected. They are calling on Regional council to join them, in their advocacy to the Province for more transparency through the difficult transition.
The uncertainty has left senior Regional staff scrambling to figure out the best way to keep critical employees, and the vital services they provide, functioning at a time when job security has become an afterthought.
Several members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 966, which represents the Department of Health Services at the Region of Peel, stood before council on October 12 to raise awareness around the crucial nature of the community services provided and the potential impacts the Region’s dissolution will have on the community. Concerns over lower wages, loss of benefits and loss of employment were at the forefront of concerns for the delegations. The local CUPE organization called on Regional council to advocate for more transparency from the transition board to provide more job security to these employees.
“Peel’s senior leaders are speaking about the impact on staff when they are meeting with the Transition Board, partners, and stakeholders,” a spokesperson from the Region told The Pointer. “The Transition Board has been provided with an enormous amount of information to allow them to make informed decisions. We continue to be committed to open and transparent communication and provide updates to employees as they become available.”
“Specifically, over 250 questions from staff were captured by the end of August and provided to the Transition Board for their information and response.”
While senior leadership and Regional staff have been working to maintain critical social services to avoid any potential hiatus amid the historic upheaval triggered by the looming dissolution, staff have been left in psychological limbo, unsure of whether they will still have a job by the end of 2024.
A June report to the Region noted recommendations from the transition board are expected to be submitted to the Ministry in the summer/fall of 2024. Legislation to address restructuring matters is expected in the fall of 2024 when the Minister will make the final decision. The Region’s CAO Gary Kent previously cautioned council that the Board has no obligations to report on any of its activities to any party other than the Minister. On October 12, Kent stated he has requested full transparency on the transition board’s recommendations.
The Province did not respond to repeated requests from The Pointer on whether it will offer the upper-tier municipality more transparency as it undergoes the dissolution process.
The Region’s upheaval, currently controlled by the Province, has pushed the upper-tier municipality into what staff has labelled an “uncertain phase,” leaving the Region floundering to ensure critical services and complex projects stay afloat to avoid disruption to service delivery for the 1.5 million residents it serves.
While the PC government has promised the process will be fair for all three municipalities and “prioritize the preservation of frontline services and workers,” the daunting task has brought concerns regarding how the transition board will steer the process, including how the finances involved in splitting up Peel will be managed; what a timeline for the transition will look like and what will happen to the more than 5,000 full-time staff the Region employs.
“I may only be just one person from my unit here today, but I can tell you I’m not alone,” Michelle Oldham, a payments and revenues officer in the Human Services Department and member of CUPE 966, told council. “We’re all asking you, Region of Peel council, to be our ally in protecting our jobs and services that residents rely on and in getting more transparency from the transition board from the province. We, both as workers and some as residents, deserve this.”
“We feel now more than ever that we are worried about our futures. We are all very concerned about the potential for job loss.”
Since the PC government announced it would be dissolving the Region of Peel by 2025, the upper-tier municipality has been struggling to retain staff.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The Region has previously admitted staff vacancies have increased since the announcement of the dissolution. In August, a spokesperson for the Region confirmed to The Pointer the municipality had 201 vacancies, noting that while “vacancies have been impacted by the announcement of Bill 112,” the Region “is working to support our employees through this time of incredible uncertainty.” By the end of the summer that number stood at 204, the Region recently confirmed in an email.
“We remain committed to ensuring there is no interruption to service delivery,” the spokesperson said at the time. “Everyone agrees that maintaining services is critical and that ensuring the well-being of staff who deliver and support the delivery of those services is of utmost importance.”
However, this will be prove to be easier said than done as the Region deals with unprecedented demand for services. The PC government’s Bill 23 forced the Region to work at an incredibly rapid pace to plan for infrastructure to build 250,000 homes (something that requires a large dedicated staff contingent); with winter approaching, Peel’s shelters are operating at 270 percent capacity, more staff will be needed to provide increased services to those in need and administer additional subsidies planned for 2024; and for Peel’s public health unit, chronic underfunding has consistently forced the unit to do more with less, and with the new demands created by the ongoing threat of COVID-19, the new responsibilities will require additional staffing with no promise from upper levels of government that they will assist with these costs.
The spokesperson explained in a recent email to The Pointer the number of vacancies varies on a monthly basis by department and role. At this time, staff are closely monitoring vacancy rates “across all business areas to identify trends and address risk areas.” The current vacancy rate is 8.5 percent, they noted.
“There is no doubt that behind-the-scenes staff are tired, especially after the COVID response and now Bill 112,” the spokesperson said. “We are concerned about the length of the uncertainty and the impact it will have on staff and, therefore, service levels.”
“Everyone’s been carrying this for five months. It's five months you’ve been waking up thinking about this and it's heavy everywhere,” Kent, the Region’s CAO said. “Where we can, we're bringing transparency. What I’m saying in the public I’m saying behind closed doors as well. I don’t change my message, I'm just trying to be transparent with that.”
“We’re committed to no service disruption, but we can only hang on for so long and it's already disrupted. We know that behind the scenes but not really on the front lines.”
The Region’s CAO Gary Kent has repeatedly assured he will provide as much transparency as he can during the dissolution process.
(Region of Peel)
According to the union’s collective agreement, which expired in December 2022, if the Region were to “amalgamate, merge or reorganize with any other body,” it is required to “notify the union in writing as soon as they are reasonably able.” It also states that, “Within thirty (30) days of receiving such written notification, the Employer and the Union will agree to meet and discuss the potential impacts on the employees in the Bargaining Unit.”
“We’re worried because there is absolutely no transparency about the entire process,” Manpreet Gill, activation therapist at Tall Pines Long Term Care, said. “Here today, I’m asking you Region of Peel council to be our allies in protecting good jobs and good services. I’m asking you to advocate for transparency and the province. The workers in the Region of Peel and residents deserve this.”
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown told the delegates, “We’re asking for that same clarity, we don’t have that clarity,” noting he’s expressed to the transition board the nervousness that many of the Region’s employees are experiencing, and the need to understand how services are going to be delivered after it dissolves.
“I know from a Brampton perspective it certainly wasn’t something we asked for,” Brown said. “We don’t think it's broken. There’s a great model that’s working, particularly in long-term care. You asked us to be your allies and I want you to know we’re certainly doing that advocacy.”
The police board is the only entity in the Region that has received the support of council to remain intact after Mississauga Councillor Carolyn Parrish moved a motion in June requesting the Region send a letter on behalf of council to the Province requesting the "immediate confirmation that the Peel Regional Police remain as a single entity and the Ontario Provincial Police Caledon Detachment remain as a single entity, beyond the dissolution of the Region of Peel," with the funding formula to be determined at a later date.
“It's almost like we’ve opened Pandora’s box and many things leaked out of it that we can’t control,” Parrish said, pointing out that the transition board has yet to make themselves present in council. “Some of us are having second thoughts on this whole process but unfortunately, it's out of the box and it's going.”
“I share your misery, I just think this part of it is really horrible and I’m really proud of the people that are hanging in there for us because we wouldn’t be able to survive without you.”
To add reassurance to the future of the Region’s over 5,000 staff it employs, Parrish introduced a motion in May requesting the Province “establish a work plan that makes obvious decisions quickly.” The motion recognized “the unknown is incredibly stressful for current staff employed by the Region of Peel” and that the looming breakup of the three municipalities has “created serious uncertainty for the Region of Peel employees in difficult economic times.”
A transition board, appointed in July, will be guiding the process as the Province dismantles the upper-tier municipality.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
For Michelle Eagle, a public health employee with the Region, not knowing what lies ahead is constantly in the back of her mind. Standing before councillors and staff, she asked, “How will I continue when we don’t know what we do will really matter in the end? Will we break up? Will we stay whole? Will we have to be divided between communities? Will I and my peers have a job?
“It may not be talked about every day but we have it at the backs of our minds and really the question is, if we do matter and our work is so integral and tied to the health and wellbeing of your communities, why can we not be provided by the province a clearer picture or guarantee to our future?” she asked.
“We are already chronically understaffed. We will leave, not because we don’t love our jobs, but because there’s no security and thought that we’re worth it,” she said, adding, “There is great risk to the region.”
Dr. Kate Bingham, Associate Medical Officer of Health, said Public Health has been closely tracking its recruitment results, which revealed “concerning results over the last three rounds of recruitment across positions top to bottom and uncertainty certainly doesn’t help.”
“It's a complex hiring environment out there so it’s hard to ascribe all of that to dissolution but it certainly isn’t helping in an already difficult health and human resources hiring environment,” Dr. Bingham told council. “It will only go so far in the face of uncertainty to attract people to these jobs,” she added, echoing the request to provide security as soon as possible.
Recognizing the strain placed on its employees, the Region announced earlier this year it would be increasing mental health benefits in 2023 — estimated to cost the upper-tier municipality approximately $460,000 for 2023, subject to actual use — to assist staff during the dissolution process. Part of mitigating these risks, staff noted, would be supporting the psychological health and wellbeing of staff as the announcement of dissolution has “understandably triggered significant anxiety and stress”.
Although he’s confident the Region’s lower-tier municipalities will be suitable employers, Kent, who vowed at the outset of the dissolution process that he wouldn’t sugar coat the reality, told the delegates in a very candid moment, “I just don’t know if you’ll be working for them at the time because we don’t know which services are going where or indeed if some will continue to be delivered.”
After several discussions with the province and transition board, Kent said “it's very much on the table” that the transition board will come to Regional council and that in speaking with the transition board and the deputy minister of municipal affairs, he has been told no decisions have been made, “however, they clearly have ideas of what that could look like and they are starting to talk to us about a process [and] how to get to something that they could then publicly communicate.”
The big question is whether the minister has approved the work plan for the transition board, which Kent said should provide some transparency, adding he’s hopeful staff and council will get a glimpse at the work plan in the coming weeks.
The Region’s spokesperson confirmed in an email the transition board’s work plan has been provided to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and although it has not yet been approved, “it is expected that it includes a plan for consulting with stakeholders.” The spokesperson also said staff have “asked that the work plan be made public and that their recommendations be made public,” noting the Region continues to provide the Board with information about the municipalities services to inform the Board’s recommendations.
“This is a humongous wicked problem,” Kent acknowledged. “We need to take it seriously with informed data and make informed recommendations. It should be public for the minister to consider and that’s what we’re hearing from senior staff.”
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