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Associations, Infrastructure, Labour

Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Labour deal at the Ottawa hospital warrants review

Karen Renkema
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Labour deal at the Ottawa hospital warrants review

We’ve been warned. Ontario’s hospital system is at capacity. The influx of COVID-19 patients has sent health care costs soaring. With hospitals under financial pressure like never before, every public health care dollar should be wisely invested. That’s why the optics are off at the Ottawa Hospital. Millions in public tax dollars are tied up in a costly and complex labour deal that ought to be raising serious questions about whether it’s money well spent.

First, our heartfelt support goes out to all frontline hospital workers. Day in and day out, their commitment to patient care has been heroic throughout the pandemic. But far from the front lines, decisions are being made that have a profound impact on hospital staff, patient care and the public. At stake are millions in public health care dollars that are going towards an unusual labour arrangement for the construction of the new Civic campus at the Ottawa Hospital.

No one is questioning the need for the hospital’s expansion. What doesn’t seem fair or right is this: The Ottawa Hospital has entered into a Project Labour Agreement (PLA) to build its new $2 billion campus. It’s believed to be a first for a public health care facility in Ontario.

The issue is not the PLA, which ensures there are no work stoppages on the project, but that the Ottawa Hospital has chosen to make the PLA restrictive. It means this massive project can be only be built by companies and workers affiliated with select unions. Their qualifications and experience don’t matter. Limiting competition on this publicly funded project is unfair to workers and to taxpayers. The end result is that it will drive up construction costs by the tens of millions of dollars.

So, the question is why? There seems to be no rationale for allowing a monopoly on this hospital project, given that construction competition lowers costs. It’s well founded that when there are fewer bidders on projects, costs rise by anywhere from 15 to 30 per cent.

This means the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus, a project that’s being built entirely with taxpayer dollars, will cost the public an additional $90 million, at minimum and for no logical reason.

Through each wave of the pandemic when every public health care dollar counts, no one needs reminding that $90 million could go a long way in hiring more staff, purchasing new hospital beds, equipment or other critical resources. It’s what makes this labour arrangement so hard to justify to hardworking taxpayers, good companies and workers.

The Ontario government’s Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, which passed in 2019, is aimed at ensuring public bodies from municipalities to school boards and hospitals, competitively procure their construction projects. This gives all qualified contractors and workers the chance at building publicly funded projects.

It’s unfortunate that after all the work that the Doug Ford government has put into implementing fairness for taxpayers, companies and workers, the Ottawa Hospital appears to be taking the opposite approach, which will increase costs on an important public infrastructure project. And it’s not just about cost but missed opportunity. At a time when the province is trying to encourage people to work in the skilled trades, the chance to be part of building the Civic campus project doesn’t exist for anyone who isn’t affiliated with a select union.

It’s about time the Ontario government set a clear direction through Infrastructure Ontario. Procurement protocols should be changed to mandate open competition on public projects. This takes the mystery out of the province’s tendering process. It also provides a clear way forward so that all companies and workers are treated fairly and taxpayers get good value on every project that’s funded with their tax dollars.

Karen Renkema is vice-president, Ontario for the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. Send Industry Perspectives column ideas and comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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