A small band of caseworkers in Nova Scotia’s ground-breaking restorative justice system are on strike to win “wage fairness” as they struggle with caseloads they say have doubled since 2016.
The group, comprised of five women and one man from the Halifax-area office, hit the picket line Monday and staged a noon-hour rally to air their grievances.
They are employed by the provincially funded Community Justice Society, and are the only unionized group of caseworkers in the system.
Denise Russell, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local, said the workload increase is directly attributable to Nova Scotia’s 2016 decision to expand its restorative justice program to include adults – the first province in Canada to do so.
Russell said the caseworkers’ salaries have also lagged behind provincial probation officers and the time has come to seek parity. She said there is as much as a $4,000 difference in the starting wage for probation officers and the caseworkers.
“We’ve allowed it to happen year after year,” said Russell.
“When the adult program came in we were like, this isn’t fair. We’re doing the same work with the same clientele and not getting a comparable wage.”
The restorative justice program brings offenders, victims of crime, and communities together to resolve issues without incarceration. It requires offenders to take responsibility for their actions and holds them accountable to the community and their victims.
The workers in the Halifax office say they handle more than 70 per cent of all cases in Nova Scotia.
Caseworker Shila LeBlanc said the Halifax workers handled 248 case files in 2016 and saw that figure jump to 617 in 2017 – a 149 per cent increase.
“The adult program was rolled out with no additional funding, no additional staff,” said LeBlanc, who pointed out that the employee turnover rate has also been high.
“We feel if we were compensated fairly the turnover rate would diminish. For now the main driver of this campaign is we need better wages.”
The caseworkers were supported at Monday’s rally by union activists, including Nova Scotia Federation of Labour president Danny Cavanagh. NDP Leader Gary Burrill also turned up in support, along with his party’s justice critic, Claudia Chender.
“While the government laudably has said that they support a restorative approach, that they want to keep people out of prisons … they are not backing that up with manpower and with dollars,” said Chender.
She said what the caseworkers are asking for is a “drop in the bucket” in terms of government expenditures, pointing out that the province ended fiscal 2017-18 with a $230-million surplus.
“You have people who are handling 25 per cent of the caseload of the Justice Department,” Chender said. “They are doing 90 per cent of what probation officers do for 57 per cent of the pay.”
WATCH: Restorative justice workers nearing legal strike position
In an email, Justice Department spokesman Andrew Preeper said it was “unfortunate” that the union and Community Justice Society were unable to reach an agreement.
“It is the union’s right to strike and we respect that. It is our hope that they go back to the table and reach an agreement soon.”
According to the department, the society gets about $650,000 annually to run the restorative justice program in Halifax. The total cost of grants that go to the seven organizations that deliver restorative justice services throughout the province is $2.2 million.
A statement on the Community Justice Society website said three non-union staff would be offering frontline support to clients during the strike, but all other day-to-day operational activities including educational programming, presentations, and volunteer recruitment and training have been put on hold.
Executive director Rebekah Powell wouldn’t comment on the caseworkers’ demands.
“As a not-for-profit organization we have to work within the limited sources that we have. Out of respect for our employees we are keeping our discussions at the table.”
Powell said the society is committed to getting an agreement.
Meanwhile, Russell was asked what a prolonged strike would mean for restorative justice in Halifax.
“It’s going to hold the system up and cause turmoil,” she said.