by Phil Ambroziak

Soon, the only line outside the clinic in downtown Meadow Lake could be a picket line. As of press time, more than 20 employees at the Meadow Lake Primary Health Centre located at 218 Centre St. were on the verge of strike action.

According to officials with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), clinic staff have been without a collective agreement since 2013 and, even though they work in the health care industry, they do not have access to health care benefits.

“The staff we represent are all women whose duties include scheduling and office assistance, booking appointments, conducting tests, pretty much everything that goes on over there that the doctors don’t do,” explained SEIU-West president Barb Cape. “As health care workers, they provide an extremely valuable service to the people of Meadow Lake and for them not to have their own health benefits seems somewhat ironic.”

According to SEIU-West vice-president Neil Colmin, the situation isn’t just ironic, it’s also distressing.

“Conciliation was unsuccessful and next steps include potential job action,” Colmin confirmed. “This is an anomaly for health care providers. Many of these workers are struggling to make ends meet. We all know how the cost of meat and produce has risen through the roof. In addition, childcare, housing and utility costs have increased significantly while wages continue to lag.”

Cape, meanwhile, went on to say a strike vote has already been taken with the majority of employees in support of walking off the job. If and when this actually happens, however, remains to be seen.

“The Saskatchewan Employment Act dictates, before strike action can occur, we need to negotiate an essential services agreement with the employer,” Cape continued. “This could take five minutes or it could take five days. No one knows at this point.”

Although Vikki Smart, vice-president of primary health services with the Prairie North Regional Health Authority, would not comment on the actual negotiations taking place between the union and her organization, she did admit strike action might be unavoidable.

“We, of course, have a contingency plan in place in case a strike does come to fruition,” Smart said. “But, we remain hopeful we’ll be able to reach a new contract agreement before that happens. Prairie North is working hard with the union to resolve this issue. This is a difficult time for everyone.”

Smart would not divulge what PNRHA’s contingency plan is, but Cape said the only option is to further utilize the local hospital.

“There is still the hospital and the many services it provides, so it won’t be as if Meadow Lake will be left with absolutely no access to health care services,” she noted. “If the employees do decide to strike, the back up in terms of service will be the hospital.”

Last year, PNRHA assumed operations at the clinic, a building they already owned but a facility that was managed by local physicians. The clinic downtown was owned by Dr. Jake Letkeman, Dr. Merv Johnson and Dr. Peter Kapusta and, while other doctors worked there, no one else ever bought in.

“PNRHA employees about 3,200 people, so it’s not a big ask to have the clinic workers treated fairly,” Cape said. “It’s time to stop splitting hairs and make this deal happen.”