Union initiative in EAP programs

A look at union-driven programs, including the USWA's Lifeline Foundation in Toronto

Many workplaces turn to third-party providers when it comes to setting up employee assistance plans (EAPs) for staff. It’s a tried and true method, usually driven from the top down, in an effort to provide employees with a valuable service and reduce costs associated with absenteeism.

But some EAP programs have been driven from the bottom up, with unions providing the impetus to get assistance for co-workers who run into trouble. One such example is the Lifeline Foundation, the union-run EAP program for the United Steelworkers of America’s (USWA) Toronto-area members.

The program launched in the mid-1970s as the brainchild of a union member who went through an alcohol treatment program at The Donwood Institute, a substance-abuse centre in Toronto. After sobering up, he came to the realization he was far from alone in the workplace and many of his co-workers didn’t know where to turn for help. Since its beginning as a resource for alcohol-related problems, the foundation has turned into an EAP offering help on a wide range of issues.

Tom Lundrigan, administrator for the Lifeline Foundation, said the program is basically a door the 30,000-odd USWA members in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region can walk through for help. The foundation offers assessment, referral and short-term counselling.

When a union member approaches the foundation for help, it examines what the employee’s benefit plan will cover and comes up with a treatment plan.

The foundation is busy, receiving anywhere from 40 to 100 calls in any given week. While there is a 12-member board of directors, comprised of six management seats and six union seats, to oversee the foundation, Lundrigan is the only full-time staff member and he has one part-time assistant.

But despite the benefits of the program, he said it’s been a very tough sell to some employers. Funding for the program comes from a variety of sources. Union members each pay 10 cents per month and the union locals give another $2 per year per member. Then the union tries to negotiate donations from employers during collective bargaining to the tune of $10 per year for each employee.

“But unless it’s written into their union agreement, it’s very hard to get any voluntary funding out of (employers),” he said. “It’s been a very hard thing to negotiate at the bargaining table, and is usually one of the first things to be taken off the table.”

Competition from third-party EAP providers has also eaten away employer support for the union-run plan, as many institute corporate-wide plans covering all staff, including those with access to the foundation.

Because of the small staff and small budget, Lifeline can’t compete with the reporting capabilities of privately run EAP programs.

“It’s been real difficult to be able to give some of the companies what they need, the detailed reporting and stuff like that,” he said. “We just don’t have the resources.”

But the foundation does have one advantage over other EAP firms in the eyes of union members.

“There’s definitely more trust (among union members) in coming to the union program,” he said. “No doubt about it. They don’t trust the other programs because they think the employer gets reports — and they do — but they don’t get the types of reports that members fear they do. It’s kind of a hallucinatory thing.”

Another example of union initiative comes from the Canadian Auto Workers’ Local 240 in Windsor, Ont., whose members work for The Canadian Salt Company Ltd.

Colette Hooson, president of Local 240, said the union used to negotiate a donation to the Brentwood Recovery Home, a substance-abuse centre, that union members and the general public could turn to in lieu of an EAP. But now the company offers a third-party EAP to most of the union members.

“We also ensure that combined fundraising efforts include the House of Sophrosyne as a recipient of money,” said Hooson. “This local is predominantly made up of women, and the house is a rehab centre for women.”

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