Native court workers feel underpaid

Job action at Kelowna courthouse Thursday underlines argument that other frontline legal system jobs pay better wages.

Without his services, Jack Kruger says prisons in B.C. will be a lot busier.

Kruger, an employee of the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C., is contemplating the end of a career that he figures saves the government hundreds of thousands a year in prison expenditures, because he’s unfairly compensated.

Native court workers are paid around $13,000 less than other front line positions in the legal system, with an average wage of $31,800. And, he said, the position he’s held since its inception in 1974 has only seen a nine per cent pay increase since 2002, despite inflation going up 18 per cent.

When weighed against the dollars saved through the position, then he sees a strong financial argument for native court workers to be better funded.

“Just me, in my position, I’ve saved the government $800,000,” he said, pointing out that one year of prison time comes at a cost of $100,000 and he’s found alternative solutions for at least eight years of time this year alone.

Kruger explained that when people are going to the courthouse, they’re scared, don’t know how to navigate the system, and because of that they often don’t. That leads to bigger problems.

He’s able to bridge that gap. He puts his clients, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, in the direction of lawyers, or just shows up in court on their behalf when they’ve found themselves unable to do so. He also makes referrals for restorative justice and alternative sentencing which keeps his clients out of the jail system.

“Natives would fall through cracks and be sentenced to jail for things that normally they wouldn’t because the judge doesn’t know the person or background,” he said.

The contract with the court workers is funded by the B.C. government and expired in 2011. Workers started rotating strike action Sept. 30.

On Thursday, the “equal pay for equal work” campaign got underway outside the Kelowna courthouse. “This is a front-line job. We don’t sit in the office waiting for clients to come to us through the door. We have to go out and search for them, meet them at the courthouse and contact them at home and quite often that means a lot of overtime that we don’t get paid for,” said Kruger.

There are 20 communities across the province on rotating job action. On Wednesday, Penticton will join Kamloops and Nanaimo with picket lines from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Kelowna will hold one on Thursday.

Kruger said the association is holding a conference call next week to decide what steps they will take next. He said he does not know at this time if this includes a full-on strike.