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Mark Anderle surveys a wheelchair he helped build during summer of 2009

Union rules could hit drug addicts’ job chances

Up to 35 positions are scheduled to be eliminated from the City of Vancouver Department of Engineering, but so far,…

By Daniel Hallen , in City , on December 23, 2009

Up to 35 positions are scheduled to be eliminated from the City of Vancouver Department of Engineering, but so far, one group appears to be safe.

Vancouver City Council passed its 2010 operating budget Dec. 18, 2009, which included cuts to programs and jobs proposed in November.  According to a union official, jobs will go as early as 1 January 2010.

The employees of the Four Pillars Supported Employment Project, who work for six-month terms over the summer, are currently being protected from the cuts.

It takes people who experience high-barriers to being employed, people recovering from drug addictions, and helps them get jobs within the Department of Engineering.

‘Walking dead’

The project is small: it’s employed 18 people in total over three years.

Mark Anderle surveys a wheelchair he helped build during summer of 2009
Anderle surveys a wheelchair ramp he helped build during summer of 2009

Mark Anderle, 41, is one of those people.

“It gave me a chance to, in a sense, recommit myself to life,” said Anderle.

Anderle has battled addiction for the last 10 years.  For the past seven years, he lived on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in a run-down skid-row hotel.

He kept what little clothing he had in a garbage bag.  He would clear a one-foot path on his bed to sleep between three- and four-foot tall piles of trash.

“I was essentially committing suicide without the guts to end it quickly,” he said.

“I was dead in any way that mattered: emotionally, spiritually, financially, physically, I was the walking dead.”

The project helped him stay drug and alcohol free, following a detox period. Through manual labour, keeping to a fulltime schedule and receiving job counseling from this project, he’s been sober for almost 18-months now.

The supported employment project is a segment of the Four Pillars Drug Policy Program, founded by former mayor Philip Owen with Donald MacPherson, the first coordinator of the program.

It’s a collaborative effort between the Drug Policy Program, the Department of Engineering, and EMBERS Staffing Solutions, a not-for-profit temporary staffing agency in the Downtown Eastside.

Related: Other supported employment projects in Vancouver

“We bring them into the workforce by giving them a leg up.” said Zarina Mulla, current coordinator of the one-person-run Drug Policy Program.

Trimming jobs

Now, the city has a budget deficit of $28 million dollars. It’s looking to cut costs.

Engineering will be hit hard. Of the more than 150 positions the city will slash, up to 35 will be from within that department.

For now, the Four Pillars program appears to be safe.

“It’s never been part of the discussion,” said Murray Wightman, in charge of Street Operations, when speaking of where the department will look to trim jobs.

The people employed through the employment project are not unionized.  Instead, they are employed through EMBERS, who then contract them to work in positions for Vancouver.

“We oppose any type of contracting out of public services,” said Mike Jackson, President of the union chapter responsible for the engineering department, CUPE Local 1004.

“But recognizing that these are individuals that get a second chance on life, we’re compassionate, we understand that, so we work through this to allow it to happen.”

Union rules

Although Jackson said he supported the project and the idea of giving people “a second crack at a new life,” he is still beholden to union rules.

In the event the city does lay-off city employees from the engineering department, those employees go on a recall list, said Jackson.

The union guarantees all laid-off unionized employees are re-employed before any new people are hired – including people from the Four Pillars program.  Jackson said this is due to the collective bargaining agreement between Vancouver and the union.

Through the project, people have worked for Sewer Operations, Water Operations, and like Anderle, forming, detailing, and finishing concrete for the Street Operations department.

Working with a small crew, Anderle helped create sloped wheelchair ramps for sidewalks, including gunnels for water-run off and non-slip surfaces, and numerous other projects making life easier for Vancouverites.

Much of the work the project employees do happens during the summer months. Jackson said many full-time engineering employees take extended vacations during the summer.  This leaves gaps with lots of work to be done and limited time before winter – gaps that people employed through the project can fill.

Wightman explained the project was not considered for cutting because its benefits outweighed its costs.

Award-winning program>

On Nov. 2, the City of Vancouver was named one of the top 100 employers in Canada for 2010.  Vancouver’s provision of six-month work experience terms to individuals recovering from drug addiction is one of the five main reasons for this distinction.

The Four Pillars Supported Employment Project is the vehicle that provides these work terms.  The project is cited as an example of positive community involvement.

Donald MacPherson, former coordinator of the Drug Policy Program, including the employment project, received the Richard J. Dennis Drugpeace Award for achievement in drug policy on Nov. 13.

Anderle now lives with a roommate he met while addicted. “At that point there was nothing in our lives but drugs and alcohol,” said Anderle, talking about his experiences before he entered detox.

“He’ll be clean two years in February; I’ll be clean two years in July.  We have a beautiful home in Burnaby, we both work full-time; we both have the most amazing women possible in our lives.”