Despite "pretty close" on deal, PCs say absenteeism remains a barrier in school support staff talks

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Ontario's education minister says absenteeism got in the way of an otherwise successful weekend as the PC government and CUPE broke off talks Sunday, triggering work-to-rule job action for school support staff Monday. 

"We were pretty close," Lecce said Monday afternoon. "We were able actually get a lot done in the context of benefits, job security, the renewal of funding for additional staff." 

"School boards are concerned as we are about the impact that high level of absenteeism has in our schools and the impact it has on students."

CUPE’s current plan provides for 131 days of sick leave or short term disability annually, including 11 days at 100 per cent of pay, followed by the rest at 90 per cent. 

While Lecce has remained tight-lipped about getting into too much of the details regarding talks, he did say they're not proposing reducing days, but rather looking at the percentage. 

"The system has got to be there for them, no one is suggesting otherwise," Lecce said. "But we're talking about rates that far exceed the average, we're talking about redirecting funding that ought to be in the classroom and I'm just trying to have a somber, adult conversation to say this number is high." 

Various school boards released statements expressing disappointment a deal had not been reached. 

The Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association echoed Lecce's comments, saying CUPE members take an excess of 15 days of sick/short term disability leave each year. 

Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, countered by saying absenteeism is a symptom of a larger problem for school support staff - who on average make $38,000. 

That issue is workplace violence. 

"I myself was off for two months when I had my jaw dislocated as a result of workplace violence," she said. "We wanted to have good, caring conversations about why are folks not at school and what can we do to address that rather than implementing punitive measures that would see some of our members in poverty." 

Walton said there aren't enough staff in schools providing supports students need in order to reduce violence. 

Lecce added he hopes talks will resume in "the coming days."