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Atira unionized workers demand higher wages, benefits

This comes in the wake of a BC Housing audit, fire at the Winters Hotel and leadership changes at the non-profit

Atira Women’s Resource Society (AWRS) workers have joined the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) to demand better pay, and working conditions, an official statement by the union said on Nov. 1. AWRS, which provides supportive housing for women and gender diverse people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence or other difficulties, has been the subject of several reports and investigations in the past year. 

The non-profit organization’s unionized employees have been in negotiations with the government to be included in the Health Employers Association of BC (HEABC) agreement along with their peers at similar organizations. AWRS is the one of largest supportive housing providers in BC to receive government funding and has approximately 500 employees. More than one-third of AWRS staff members are women of colour, Indigenous women, and gender-diverse persons. 

According to BCGEU executive vice-president, Kari Michaels, speaking on behalf of the unionized workers, AWRS staff members joined the BCGEU to address issues such as workplace safety, job security, and inadequate wages. Their demands include better workplace conditions to enable them to support the women and gender-diverse people they serve in the buildings and to address issues of transparency within the organization. 

Atira workers holding up signs demanding equal pay to workers in the community health agreement. Photo: BCGEU

Michaels told the Beacon that since AWRS receives most of its funding from the government, AWRS workers are eligible to be placed in the community health agreement which provides for different job classifications and higher compensation grades. However, Michaels said the government has placed them in the community social services agreement instead, which provides lower pay, different benefits, and fewer protections. Michaels said workers at other supportive housing providers who are under the community health agreement do the same kind of work as AWRS staff members. 

“What we’re seeing is that the women and gender-diverse workers at Atira are being separated from their peers at Raincity, Lookout, and Portland Hotel Society. And they deserve equal pay for equal work and should be in that same agreement,” Michaels said.  

Over the past year, Atira has come under scrutiny for conflict of interest allegations and a recent fire at one of their buildings, the Winters Hotel, in which two people died. In response to the Beacon’s question about the role of recent events in AWRS workers’ decision to unionize, Michaels said, “The workers at Atira want to support having a more transparent organization to ensure that the buildings are safe for them and for the people that live in them, by being united in the community health agreement to work together with other workers in the supportive housing agencies in the Lower Mainland, who are facing similar issues and to be able to advocate for improvement.”

The Beacon also interviewed a women’s support worker at Atira who wished to remain unnamed out of fear of any repercussions from her employer. She told the Beacon that while she loves her workplace, there is always room for improvement. She added that AWRS has a high turnover rate, and some staff members struggle to cope and respond to the complex needs of the women and gender-diverse people they serve. 

“I think that’s attributed to people coming into this work not really knowing the complexity that comes with it. Some people don’t understand the dynamics, a lot of our buildings are low-barrier, so it can be really hard on someone’s mental health dealing with constant overdoses, and traumatic events. It’s for some people but not for everyone,” she said. 

Atira workers demand better pay and benefits. Photo: BCGEU

She added that in recent months she has been seeing some positive changes at the nonprofit, with employees’ concerns being heard. “I think with the things that we deal with on a daily basis it was really important for staff to have a voice as well. And our mental health and wellbeing were also being recognized,” she said. 

“I love working for Atira, I am someone who struggled with addiction for over 20 years, so Atira gave me the opportunity to return to the same community I was once a part of, so I love the work I do. Part of the work we do is responding to the fentanyl and toxic drug crisis. Our work can be heartbreaking but in the end it’s worth it because we save lives, the environment can change from minute to minute but I wouldn’t change anything about my work with Atira.” 

Recent media reports interviewing staff members at AWRS paint a different picture, where employees complain about serious health and safety issues, stating that their employer has not addressed their concerns.

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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