LaborFamily News & Views

Help for Postal Workers with Special Needs Children

ATU Local 192 members (left to right) Arsenia Legaspi, Phylistine Ford and Stephanie Plummer. Vito Antonio Vittoria, a truck driver for Canada Post sinceine 1999, credits the CUPW’s Special Needs Project for helping him pay expenses related to the needs of his autistic daughter Rita-Alexsandra Vittoria.

By Jamie Kass

BEGINNINGS

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) represents 54,000 members who work for Canada Post as rural and suburban mail carriers, letter carriers, mail service couriers, postal clerks, mail handlers, mail dispatchers, technicians, mechanics, electricians and electronic technicians. The union also represents cleaners, couriers, drivers, vehicle mechanics, warehouse workers, mail house workers, emergency medical dispatchers, bicycle couriers and other workers in more than 15 private sector bargaining units.

In 1996, CUPW sponsored a study on workforce barriers for parents of children with special needs. The study showed that not only do parents of children with special needs have additional expenses related to their child’s disability but they are also strained for time for themselves, their partner or other children. Caregiving responsibilities also take a toll on the workforce participation of spouses, many of whom are unemployed, underemployed or work part-time. Another major obstacle to work and a source of stress is the lack of access to appropriate, affordable licensed child care.

The study’s eye-opening findings led the union to put in place the Special Needs Project to assist union members who have special needs children.

BARGAINING VICTORIES

The Special Needs Project helps alleviate the stresses of postal union parents with special needs children. It provides union members with one-on-one support from advisors familiar with disability resources and services; funding to help offset some of the expenses related to the child’s special need; and information such as a regular newsletter featuring parent letters and articles as well as offers and requests for help. The Project funding has also been used for child care, respite, recreation program fees, and specialized training for child care workers. The Project also advocates for government funding and policies to support high quality child care that is inclusive of children with disabilities.

The Project is funded through CUPW’s Child Care Fund, which was negotiated into the union’s collective agreement with Canada Post in the early 1990s. The union put a demand for the fund on the table after a survey showed that postal workers—many of whom work non-traditional shifts—had difficulty finding and affording high quality child care. The fund is solely administered by CUPW and can be used for projects related to child care services for postal worker families, information and research. The union has expanded the fund’s coverage over the years and it now supports another project for CUPW members with dependent adult children with special needs.

The union also recently negotiated cost-of-living increases into the fund, which is capped at $2.5 million. Canada Post makes quarterly fund deposits of $324,000. In upcoming negotiations, the union plans to put forth a demand to make increases to fund contributions independent from the employer’s profit levels.

BUILDING SUPPORT

Members have been supportive of the union’s Special Needs Project and the Child Care Fund from the start. The union has made it a priority to keep building on this foundation, integrating child care and inclusion issues into all of its work, especially its education and communication initiatives. A key concern voiced by parents with children who have disabilities is co-worker support and understanding.  Special needs issues have been featured in the union’s education program for activists, and the Project was the subject of a commissioned book and video. The union has also produced materials for use on the shop floor—a poster and a quiz on why the lives of parents of children with special needs are more demanding.

LESSONS LEARNED

The union regularly evaluates the effectiveness of the Special Needs Project. Parents have reported seeing a positive improvement in their child’s language and academic skills, happiness, self-esteem, social skills, independence and maturity. Parents say they are less stressed and that the program has made a big difference in their ability to access therapy, services or appropriate equipment for their children.  Their feedback has also prompted the union to negotiate vitamins, batteries for hearing aids and other supports into its members’ benefit plans.

The experience of parents in the Project points the way to trends and emerging issues that affect everyone. CUPW members whose children have disabilities often use health and social services more frequently and for longer periods of time and are sooner to notice changes to services than the general population.

The Special Needs Project is the most important utilization of CUPW’s Child Care Fund. Initiatives like the Project are costly. It takes more money to provide effective assistance to families who have children with disabilities and hence it is important that employers and governments fund such programs. Helping workers balance their work and family lives should be as much of a priority for employers and governments as it is for unions. Support for working families must be a collective responsibility.

For more information visit: www.specialneedsproject.ca

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