Unions heavily invested in EAPs

Concerned about privacy, unions sometimes start their own programs
By Lorna Harris
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/09/2007

An employee assistance program (EAP) is a good way to help employees deal with various mental health issues and help an employer reduce costs associated with lost productivity and absenteeism.

In most corporate environments, the EAP is run by management and either an internal or external provider. However, in unionized environments, the union is an interested third party that can affect how the program is set up and run.

In some small unionized environments, the union signs off on whatever EAP agreement the employer develops with a provider. This is what happens at work sites with less than 250 employees that have the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers as a union, according to Bill Shipman, grand lodge representative in Peterborough, Ont.

However, union-management arrangements do not always work out that seamlessly. One of the most important aspects of any EAP program is confidentiality. Concerns that the privacy of individual workers is not being protected can lead to the other extreme — a completely union-sponsored program.

This became a sticking point for Dave Park, a senior union representative with the Canadian Office and Professional Employees union (COPE) in Burnaby, B.C. He found that for two of the workplaces represented by COPE, an EAP provider was not providing confidential services.

Without consulting the union, the employer provided the EAP with a list of all the positions it considered safety sensitive and asked the EAP counsellor to “let them know immediately if anyone (in one of those positions) came to them with a drug or alcohol problem,” said Park.

When he questioned the service provider, he was told employees had the choice not to use the EAP. In the end, the union went looking for a new provider.

Not all union-management arrangements end so drastically. In southwestern Ontario, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union has worked closely with employers to provide employee assistance.

Patrick Keenan at CAW Local 444 in Windsor, Ont., has been involved in this effort for 15 years. Keenan worked on the line at Chrysler, trained as a health and safety representative and went to university for addictions training. He works for Chrysler but is paid by Local 444.

If the union/management arrangement works, it is likely because the employers trust the union people to get results, says Keenan.

“It is cheaper to rehabilitate than to fire and hire,” he says.

He adopts what he calls a “down-to-earth” approach with troubled employees and “thumps ’em with a little reality.” Knowing from personal experience that many don’t seek help for addictions until they reach rock bottom, he tries to raise the bottom in-house.

One strategy is to look at attendance records to see if a pattern of absenteeism is emerging. Asked whether this may infringe on a worker’s privacy, Keenan says that as a “union guy” his interventions are not seen as discipline or as punishment, but rather as education and an attempt to help.

Corporate EAP providers often are not aware of the nuances of collective agreements and how they affect workplace rules and customs, says Keenan.

EAP providers may also offer expensive package deals that include unnecessary services, such as drug testing for safety-sensitive issues, says Keenan.

“Testing for drugs doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which may be costing not only the worker but also the corporation a lot of money,” he says.

Although union-based EAPs originated more than 40 years ago as drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, they have broadened to include financial counselling, stress management and family-oriented issues.

One of the more hands-on programs is a union counselling program, where union members are trained to help workers identify problems so they can be referred to appropriate community services.

In Alberta, a joint initiative between the United Way and the Edmonton and District Labour Council provides training for union members. Since its inception in 1980, 500 members have participated in the 13-week, 50-hour program, which provides information on how union members can help their peers deal with issues like drug and alcohol abuse, family and domestic violence, suicide, stress, assault and financial difficulties.

Frustrated by long wait times for community-based alcohol and drug treatment, the British Columbia Yukon Territory Building Construction Trades Union and the Construction Labour Relations Association of British Columbia, an employer association, built its own eight-bed treatment centre in 1989. Since then, the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan has seen about 7,700 tradespeople for various addiction issues, of which 1,700 were in-patients.

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, a weekly newsletter that reports on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. For more information visit www.hrreporter.com/clv.

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