March 25, 2020

Serious Concerns of Frontline Workers in Ontario

The Danger of Suspending Health Workers' Contracts

Nurses Demand Collaboration on Redeployment During COVID-19
Seventy Per Cent of Hospital Staff Dissatisfied with Government's Protective Measures - Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE

Proposals Which Deserve Consideration
Transform Provincially-Owned Casinos into Reserves for Health Care - Enver Villamizar
•  City of Niagara Falls Mayor Calls for Support for Health Care Workers

Serious Concerns of Frontline Workers in Ontario

The Danger of Suspending Health Workers' Contracts

On March 21, the Ontario government announced it would use its emergency powers to override hospital staff's contracts and issued an emergency order giving hospitals the power to reassign, change shifts, cancel leaves and vacations, have contractors brought in to supplement the workforce and have volunteers and non-bargaining unit people do bargaining unit work. On March 23, a similar order was issued for long-term care. The orders last for 14 days and can be renewed for a further 14 days and then would have to be passed into law to remain in effect.

Pointing out that under Ontario labour law, hospital workers have very limited rights to refuse unsafe work and do not have the legal right to strike as other workers do, the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU/CUPE) said in a press release:

“It is profoundly unfair to a dedicated mostly female hospital workforce who due to the lack of protective masks, face shields and other equipment are already in harms way and greater risk of COVID-19 infection that the Ontario government gives itself broad powers to take away their workplace rights,” says Michael Hurley president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE).

"But if our members are willing to sacrifice themselves to provide high quality care, they deserve to be consulted about what changes are needed in the workplace to accommodate the emergency, and they have not been. The government order is unnecessary, disrespectful and coercive," Hurley said.

"Why is the female dominated hospital workforce, who have stepped up to deliver high quality care with limited resources and some of whom are already falling ill from COVID-19, treated so badly by this government?" asks Hurley. "First the Ontario government fails to order enough masks, face shields and gloves, then it waters down its standard for protection for health care staff to suit its supply shortage and then it gives itself broad powers to take away many of their workplace rights without a word of consultation."

Hurley is reminding the government that despite the extraordinary time for Ontario and globally there has been no difficulty transferring staff from closed day clinics and outpatient surgeries to screening centres and to other services.

"We would certainly help to overcome any such problem. Hospital workers have been there and will be there for the people of Ontario as the pandemic intensifies. We can be counted on," Hurley says. "But if our members are willing to sacrifice themselves to provide high quality care, they deserve to be consulted about what changes are needed in the workplace to accommodate the emergency, and they have not been. The government order is unnecessary, disrespectful and coercive."

Hurley is urging the government to use its emergency powers to order Ontario industry to produce masks and ventilators, which are in short supply. Both will be needed to protect the health care workforce from infection and the sickest of COVID-19 patients.

"Our members want to focus on care, and they do not want to be distracted from that. We need the government to ensure that this order expires as scheduled. An extension would be very problematic."

OCHU/CUPE’s 40,000 members work at 120 sites of more than 60 hospitals in Ontario.

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Nurses Demand Collaboration on Redeployment During COVID-19

The Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA) represents more than 68,000 registered nurses and health care professionals in Ontario, as well as 18,000 nursing student affiliates, providing care in hospitals, long-term care facilities, public health, the community, clinics and industry.

In a press release dated March 22, ONA is demanding that health care employers work with them should it become necessary, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to redeploy nurses and other health care professionals to other sites and locations within the same employer. The press release was written in response to the Minister of Health's order released the day before which gives hospitals free rein to suspend certain provisions of their collective agreements. It allows them to cancel and postpone services and redeploy health care workers, change their assignments and work schedules, replace unionized workers with contractors, defer or cancel vacations, absences or other leaves, and unilaterally change other working conditions.

"Registered nurses and health care workers know how to pull together during a crisis and under intense pressure. We have had lots of practice, including during SARS," writes ONA President Vicki McKenna, RN. "We know that we are in a crisis and remain committed to caring for patients. If not done carefully and thoughtfully, any redeployment of nurses and health care professionals could put both patients and frontline nurses at risk."

The ONA is also reminding health care employers as well as the Ontario government that they must take into account the fact that most nurses are women who have to balance work and other responsibilities, including child care, every day.

The ONA also points out that "It must be a priority to keep nurses and health care workers safe and ensure that redeployment is carried out as smoothly as possible -- with as little risk to our patients as possible. We are not a barrier to a well-coordinated and appropriate response to the pandemic, we are part of the solution."

The President of the ONA also informs that the union is going to meet with the Ontario Hospital Association and will urge health care employers across the province to work with the ONA and its local leaders as the province faces down the pandemic.

(Photo: Ontario Nurses' Association)

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Seventy Per Cent of Hospital Staff Dissatisfied with Government's Protective Measures

More than 2,400 hospital staff took part in an urgent Ontario-wide conference call on March 21 sponsored by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) focused on the impact of COVID-19 on them as they care for the sick.

Throughout the information-based call, several key questions were posed to the hospital workers. When asked if they believed that the Ontario government has taken all the necessary steps to protect their safety and that of the people they care for at work, only 30 per cent said yes. Asked if they had the personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them and the people they care for safe at work, 77 per cent answered, no.

"We need health care workers to be as protected as they can be from being infected from Coronavirus so that they can continue to care for the sick," says OCHU president Michael Hurley. "The position of the Ontario government puts health care staff at risk because it downplays the possibility that the virus is airborne. We lived this same nightmare during SARS, when the authorities told us that virus was not airborne and were proved wrong, but only after many Ontario health care staff had fallen sick and a number had died. We won't repeat that experience if we can help it."

China's rate of infection of health care staff is just over 3 per cent. There, health care staff wore full-body protective gear, including goggles, complete head coverings, N95 particle-filtering masks, and hazmat-style suits. In Italy, which follows a protocol like Ontario's, the infection rate among health care staff is over eight per cent.

Eighty-one per cent of the 2,400 hospital staff on the call said they are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

OCHU is the hospital division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) which in Ontario represents about 45,000 hospital nurses, cleaners, dietary, trades workers, administrative and ward clerks. An alliance of unions (including OCHU/CUPE) representing 250,000 health care staff in the province, recently urged the provincial government not to dilute guidelines on PPE for health care on the basis that there is a supply shortage.

"Staff who are screening or coming into proximity of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients, should be given full protective equipment, including N95 masks. Now, as JAMA, the Lancet and other respected medical journals and voices call for health care staff to treat this virus as if it could be airborne, we are asking for the ability to meet that standard and to protect ourselves, so that we can continue to provide care for the people of Ontario," says Hurley.

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Proposals Which Deserve Consideration

Transform Provincially-Owned Casinos into
Reserves for Health Care

One proposal that is being made to expand the health care capacity to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic is for casino operations and hotels that are now shuttered to be transformed into field hospitals or quarantine facilities for health care workers. In Ontario for example, the Ontario government through the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation owns three casinos which have hotel capacity. There is interest from workers who work in the casinos and their union as well as some locally elected officials in cities such as Windsor and Niagara Falls. The proposal should be taken seriously. Such a move could add a total of 1,052 beds, providing a reserve.

The casinos in Ontario that currently have hotels and the number of rooms in each are:

Caesars Windsor: 389 rooms in Forum Tower and 369 rooms in Augustus Tower
Casino Rama, Orillia: 289 rooms
Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort: 374 rooms

Caesars Windsor (Wikipedia)

Great Blue Heron Casino in Port Perry is currently building an expansion, including a 100-room hotel for July 2020 (that could be shifted to be used for medical purposes).

The workers who work in these casinos have been laid off but could be reorganized and trained to prepare the casinos for the possibility of being used as reserve health care facilities. The workers who normally work in these casinos know them best and how to clean them. They could work with relevant professionals in sanitation to ensure that they are up to standards required for the new purpose. This would first and foremost mean intense cleaning to begin with and covering carpeted rooms with a different surface to prevent storage of pathogens. Using plywood covered by proper materials could permit such a shift.

In the case of Caesars Windsor, it has two towers which are separated spatially and would be an ideal setup for health care workers to be housed, with patients infected with COVID-19 who need monitoring but not intensive care in separate facilities. The casinos have full side kitchens, conference facilities and cleaning facilities.

Approximately half of the nurses in Windsor and Essex County work in Michigan across the border. On March 25, Michigan had the fifth highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. at 2,295. Of these, 705 were in Detroit, where the bulk of the Canadian nurses work. These nurses as well as other health care professionals are currently going back and forth across the border on a daily basis and should have lodging separate from their families so they do not pass the virus to them should they become infected. Such a reserve of capacity could support both the Canadian and U.S. working class and people and deserves serious consideration. The U.S. which relies on the nurses and others to work under difficult conditions in their hospitals should pay for providing places for them to stay during the pandemic to help keep them and others safe and prevent unnecessary transmission of the virus.

In Windsor there are two schools of nursing, one at the University of Windsor and the other at St. Clair College. The city also has degree and diploma programs in medical laboratory science and a school of medicine. The human resources exist to make this proposal a reality. It could then be rolled out as a model for other casinos across Canada to be repurposed. Where there is a will, there is a way! The working people in these communities should seriously consider this proposal and work out how it can be made to happen.

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City of Niagara Falls Mayor Calls for
Support for Health Care Workers

On March 22, the St. Catharines Standard reported that Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said, "Health care workers who may, through their job, be exposed to COVID-19, don't want to go back to their families and risk infection, So, if they can live temporarily in isolation in a hotel room, I think it's a safer approach to protecting our health care workers and their families." Diodati said the public health department and the Niagara Health hospitals system is evaluating a number of hotel properties to determine if the suggestion is viable. He said hotels could also play a role in fighting the pandemic by, if needed, becoming makeshift field hospitals. "We have to prepare for anything and everything," he said. "We can be proactive. In the event we need a field hospital, we don't need to build a hospital like they did in Wuhan. We have a bunch of hotels that are sitting empty. I thought it was really generous of the hotels to want to be part of the solution."

Oakes Hotel is one of the properties offering to help. "What may not be known to people is the province has the right to commandeer hotels in times of crises," said Doug Birrell, Chief Executive Officer at Oakes Hotel and Executive Director of the Niagara Falls, Canada Hotel Association.

"They can do it, we're just making it easier for them. I think all of the major properties have embraced the idea."

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