04/02/2017 16:00 EDT | Updated 04/03/2018 01:12 EDT

Talks break off, strike continues for Canadian Hearing Society workers

Workers with the Canadian Hearing Society will begin their fifth week of an Ontario-wide strike after their union broke off bargaining talks Saturday, citing sick leave as a linchpin issue.

"The reason we're out on strike is because the employer is insisting on eroding the sick leave plan," said Alison Davidson, a national representative with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Davidson said the hearing society tabled new language on Friday that would "strip the sick leave plan right down to the bare bones."

The Canadian Hearing Society is a non-profit organization that provides services for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

CUPE Local 2073 has been on strike since March 6 and represents 227 workers across Ontario. Striking workers include interpreters, speech language pathologists, counsellors, literacy instructors and audiologists.

Canadian Hearing Society 'disappointed'

The Canadian Hearing Society says it is disappointed that the union rejected its latest offer and is continuing the strike.

In a statement, vice president Gary Malkowski said the society's latest offer included "retroactive wage improvements, increased pension contributions, a new employer-paid short-term disability program and a significant buyout of accumulated sick leave banks."

He said he thought both sides were making progress.

"CHS was hopeful the parties would reach a deal that was in the best interest of all our employees and would get them back to work," he said in the statement.

4 days of talks

After four days of talks aimed at ending the strike, however, CUPE said the hearing society was being "unreasonable" on proposed changes to the sick leave plan.

Davidson said the union was willing to compromise on a buyout for unused sick day banks. However, she said the CHS also wants the terms and conditions of a new short-term disability plan to be determined by a third party.

"They want to erode the bargaining rights. They want to take away sick leave," she said.

CHS spokesperson Kara-Ann Miel would only respond to questions via email. She said the details of short-term disability programs are determined between the employer and the insurance company, "to best suit the needs of the employee group."

The CHS also says the program would "provide income protection for all CHS sick or injured employees when they need it most, unlike a sick bank that can run out."

CUPE can 'endure a long strike'

Davidson said CUPE is now only looking for wage increases, after withdrawing all other proposals.

She said CUPE is willing to go back to the bargaining table anytime. 

However, she said CUPE "has the resources and the ability to endure a long strike."

Meanwhile, some people who rely on the Canadian Hearing Society say the ongoing strike means they are struggling with limited access to interpreters and other key services.

Unionized workers at the Canadian Hearing Society have not had a contract for the past four years.

Negotiations have been ongoing since late 2016.