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Ontario offers free daycare for health- and child-care workers if CUPE strike closes schools on Monday


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Ontario offers free daycare for health- and child-care workers if CUPE strike closes schools on Monday

The Ontario government is offering free daycare to health- and child-care workers so they can stay on the job should CUPE school support staff strike on Monday.

Talks are scheduled all weekend between the province and the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ school boards bargaining unit, and they say they will let parents know by 5 p.m. Sunday if the 55,000 custodians, early childhood educators and educational assistants will walk off the job.

“Until we can reach an agreement, we know this will be difficult for many parents with their children learning at home,” a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Friday.

“We also recognize it is critical that health care and licenced child care workers can continue to do their jobs. That’s why our government will provide these workers who may not be able to support their child’s learning at home with access to free care for elementary schoolchildren” starting Monday.

The child care will be offered to those who work in hospitals, long-term care and retirement homes, among others.

Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, said in a public message to parents Friday that “while this government continues to underinvest in schools and ignore the needs of students and parents, we remain committed to improving services in our schools.”

Walton said the union is fighting for more educational assistants, early childhood educators and library staff, among other jobs.

“We are not willing to be bought off by a loonie,” she said of the government’s latest offer.

“We are not going to turn our backs on the needs of parents when you have been so supportive this entire fight.”

CUPE is holding rallies on Saturday as negotiators return to the table with the help of a mediator.

Should no agreement be reached, Caitlin Clark, Lecce’s director of communications, said the government has also made changes so that all families can access “a variety of different programs, like day camps and (recreation) programs or existing licensed child care programs that still have available spaces” and allowing before- and after-school programs to offer all-day care by “expediting licence revision requests and relocation approvals to make it easier for licensed programs to expand.”

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“We remain on the side of all parents who just want to see their children in the classroom learning. We’ll continue to be at the table to make that happen,” Clark said.

The Ministry of Education will provide funding to licenced child cares, day camps and recreation programs run by a municipality or an outside provider like the YMCA, and has asked them to “create conditions that support students’ engagement in remote learning where possible. Service system managers and program operators are encouraged to continue to work with school board partners to ensure collaboration and the smooth operation of these programs.”

Schools have been told to stay open if they can, and to offer live online learning if they cannot. Parents who can’t work from home to supervise them have raised concerns about how to accommodate the switch.

CUPE has rejected a government offer that included the equivalent of a 15.2 per cent pay raise over four years, saying it wants to also ensure additional staff in schools.

Earlier this month, its members held a two-day strike that ended after the Ford government agreed to rescind Bill 28, which pre-emptively banned job action and imposed a four-year contract on the workers using the Charter of Rights’ “notwithstanding clause.”

That move proved controversial in the wider labour movement, with union leaders from both the private and public sectors condemning the move.

Lecce has said the government has added 7,000 education workers since taking office in 2018.

“We pledged to continue funding 1,800 additional education workers and 800 teachers who will support our kids within our schools as part of our program before the union,” Lecce has said of the staffing boost for this school year alone.

In the controversial legislation that has since been repealed, the imposed contract set wage increases at 2.5 per cent annually for lower-paid workers and a 1.5 per cent yearly hike for those making more than $43,000.

The Tories have since offered 3.6 per cent annual raises over four years across the board, or $1 an hour per worker. With compound interest, that is equivalent to 15.2 per cent by the end of the contract.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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