On Thursday morning, the leaders of two different unions representing healthcare workers demanded that the Ontario government bring the legislature back early to deal with the urgent human resources crisis in the province’s health facilities, and they had some powerful optics to back them up. All three of Ontario’s opposition leaders joined them on the call to demand more action from Premier Doug Ford.
“Today is about co-operation, not chaos. It’s not about partisanship, but rather a plan, or the absence of one, for our universal health care system on the brink,” said Sharleen Stewart, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare. “It’s about the actions necessary to support our health care workers on the frontline from a government that has itself been guilty of absenteeism.
“Enough is enough. We’re calling on Premier Ford to immediately recall the legislature for an emergency session to confront the harsh reality of the province’s healthcare staffing crisis, starting with the urgent repeal of Bill 124,” Stewart added.
Bill 124, or the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, capped the salary increases for public service workers to one per cent per year for three years with limited exemptions. Many labour leaders in healthcare have cited Bill 124 as one of the main threats to retention of healthcare staff because administration can’t use pay raises as an incentive when hiring or retaining employees.
“People work multiple jobs, they beg for extra shifts. They don’t get paid when they get COVID, and they don’t get paid when they’re awaiting for tests for COVID,” explained Michael Hurley, President, Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (CUPE/OCHU). “All the kind and generous words do not make up for this reality. The safety of these workers has been ignored, their workplaces have a serious and unchecked problem with racial, sexual, verbal and physical violence and during the pandemic these healthcare workers could not get access to the protective equipment they needed to work safely.”
Hurley said Quebec has seen success in paying PSWs $26 an hour plus additional benefits and as a result they’ve seen an 87 per cent retention of new hires because of that. But it’s not just new hires that Hurley is worried about, he’s also concerned about hanging on to thousands of Ontario healthcare staff once the pandemic is over.
“All of our internal polling of the 20,000 nurses and 50,000 other healthcare workers that our unions represent suggest that there will be an exodus after the pandemic,” Hurley said. “This exodus will be driven by frustration over ongoing real wage cuts, and the pervasive feeling that no one cares about their safety, or that of their family. People are holding on now just out of loyalty to the people of Ontario and to their co-workers.”
Stewart and Hurley were notably joined by the three opposition leaders of the Ontario legislature for the virtual press conference.
Official Opposition leader Andrea Horwath called for the recall of the legislature earlier this week, and said that the Ford government’s lack of support for frontline health staff was adding insult to injury as bad policy has resulted in the worst wave of the pandemic yet in terms of the total number of cases.
“The people who are on the frontlines of our healthcare system in this province deserve respect, they deserve support, they deserve fairness, and they are not getting any of those things,” Horwath said. “Doug Ford’s low wage policy is a slap in the face to all of those healthcare workers that we laud with words. Our healthcare system is falling apart before our eyes, and Doug Ford is sitting on his hands. The repeal of [Bill] 124 has to be a priority.”
Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said it was remarkable to have all three opposition leaders on the same call with the same message, but at the same time said that politics was not the point of the call.
“This is about dealing with a pandemic, especially in the absence of real leadership from Doug Ford, but this is also about the moral imperative to do the right thing, and standing up for the women and men who have been working so hard and so heroically on the frontlines during the pandemic,” Del Duca said.
“This is not the first time that during this pandemic that the three opposition parties have banded together to work on really important issues,” Del Duca added. “I think one of the biggest mistakes that Doug Ford has made during this pandemic is to not do more effective genuine outreach to all three opposition parties so that we could provide our advice, insight and guidance directly. I think throughout this pandemic, what people in our province have wanted to see is that true Team Ontario approach where we go beyond partisan lines.”
Green Party leader and Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner, who’s repeatedly expressed his desire to work across those party lines, said that this is a critical moment in the pandemic where everybody has to be united against COVID and shore up the healthcare system for the future.
“I stand ready to work with members of the legislature from all parties, all parties to blunt this wave of the pandemic. And to make sure that our health care system has the resources it needs to take care of our neighbours, our loved ones, and our fellow Ontarians,” Schreiner said. “It is so clear that nurses are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated.
“This is wrong, and revoking Bill 124 is a start to change that,” Schreiner added. “It shows us that nurses can get the compensation they deserve, and that they can access the benefits they need, benefits like mental health supports, which I know is so vital at this particular moment in time.”
The press conference was meant to show a united front of frustration, especially with the silence from the current Provincial government. Stewart said that healthcare workers will be busy post-pandemic too, catching up with all the surgeries and procedures that have been postponed, and that repealing Bill 124 would be a good first step to tell workers that the government is in it to protect them for the long haul.
“That needs to be the first step and then we need a human resources plan that takes a look at the system, where it’s been the past, what we’ve learned from COVID, and then let’s fix the darn thing once and for all going forward,” Stewart explained.
“It is horrific on the frontlines right now, people are breaking down in their cars, they’re breaking down at work, they are literally collapsing,” Stewart added. “I have dozens of calls a day for counselling, it’s like these people are coming out of war, and they are without a doubt experiencing post traumatic stress symptoms.”