Healthcare Workers are “Crying Out for a Life Raft”

Another weekend in Ontario means another weekend of hospital closures as healthcare workers struggle again to cover widening gaps in the system, and they’re crying out for help. This was the message from representatives of healthcare worker unions and advocacy groups at a media availability on Friday as they laid out a five-point plan the Provincial government could take to turn the issue around right now.

“I can’t overstate that this press conference this morning is very significant because 120,000 hospital workers in our unions are coming together to cry out for a life raft,” said Cathryn Hoy, a registered nurse and president of the Ontario Nurses Association.

“We all know in our own lives that if things aren’t going great, you really get shut down, and then something happens that gives you that bit of hope,” Hoy added. “Of course it’s not going to be taken care of by this weekend, but if the premier would pull and repeal Bill 124, it would be a ray of hope that nurses could say, ‘Okay, the government is going to back us, they’re finally going to help us out.’ And that’s what they need.”

Repealing Bill 124, legislation passed by the Government of Ontario pre-pandemic that limits increases to the compensation of government workers to one per cent per year, is recommendation number two from the group that includes the ONA, CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions and SEIU Healthcare.

There were five recommendations in all from the group including the expansion of post-secondary spaces with financial aid, real financial incentives to encourage retention, the hiring of thousands of new workers across all positions, and support for current workers in the form of mental health and childcare. On that last point, the repeal of Bill 124 is essential because these types of assistance would count as compensation.

“Either the government has a plan that works or a plan that’s failing, and their plan is failing so let’s start working on a plan that works,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare. “What we have today in Ontario is a failing health care system.”

“I think the people of Ontario, and certainly the hospital workforce, are looking for the government to articulate a plan that gives people hope that this situation will be turned around, and that their community hospital will be open fully, and staffed up,” added Michael Hurley from CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

“The premier was in Stratford this week, it’s a small city surrounded by communities whose hospitals are struggling with a staffing crisis, and many of which have closed their ERs temporarily: Wingham, Seaforth, Listowel, and St. Mary’s, and yet the premier was reassuring us that almost everyone will continue to receive the care that they need in a timely way,” Hurley added.

The trio were also not sitting still for Doug Ford’s argument that this a Canada-wide problem. Yes, other province’s are facing similar staffing issues, but Ontario spends less per capita on healthcare than any other province, and then there was that $1.8 billion that the Government of Ontario underspent last year and applied to the deficit.

“We’re asking the Ford government to step up the plate and lead by example,” Hoy said. “I just want to reiterate that Ontario underspent $1.8 billion in healthcare dollars despite having $22.7 billion more in revenue, so I’m a little lost at why we have a problem here.”

“Comparing ourselves to the other provinces is actually to Ontario’s disadvantage because we are an outlier. We’re at the very bottom in terms of beds to population and staff to population. We’ve been underfunded and cut for years,” added Hurley. “With respect to this being a problem that’s shared, it’s much much worse in the Province of Ontario because we went into the pandemic with so few staff to patients relative to the other jurisdictions.”

According to the group, the immediate remedy, and a good place to begin if the government is interested in retaining and recruiting hospital and healthcare staff, is repealing Bill 124.

“Bill 124 kind of goes to the heart of the demoralization that existing workers feel,” Hurley said. “Although the public and the government say that [health workers] have made a tremendous contribution, which they have, the reality is that their wages are being cut significantly in real terms, and that is  not an expression of their value. People are leaving for better work, or just because they won’t do it anymore.”

“It is the most demoralizing, it is the most undemocratic, it is the most sexist piece of legislation that I’ve ever seen in my career, and why he doesn’t want to start with that is beyond me,” Stewart added. “They’ll pay four times they hourly rates for agency staff that recruit outside the country, but [Ford] won’t deal with his own people in his own province. All it takes is a signature that he could do this afternoon.”

Hoy called the situation “critical” as hospitals across the province are looking at another weekend of “silent closures.” While the ERs may be open, they may be operating at reduced capacity, and even if the emergency department is functioning, other services like labour and delivery, elective surgeries, and even cancer treatments are being short staffed or closed altogether due to a lack of resources, and it’s not just the hospital being affected.

“No one is untouched. We have homecare out there and it’s very much suffering, we have people that need nurses in the community and there’s no nurses to send into the community, and we’re seeing more people in emergencies because public health doesn’t have any nurses,” Hoy explained.

“No area’s unaffected, and every area of nursing ties with one another because homecare keeps people out of hospital or gets them home earlier, and public health keeps people safe so they’re not coming to hospital,” she added. “It really is a vicious circle, and we have to look at all aspects of it when we’re looking to correct this tidal wave of a disaster in healthcare that we have.”

On Thursday, the Toronto Star reported that Health Minister Sylvia Jones had directed the regulatory bodies for nurses and doctors to accredit professionals trained in other countries “as expeditiously as possible.” Internationally trained doctors and nurses, the directive said, “represents a significant potential source of additional health human resources that will help alleviate pressures in the near term.”

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