September 15, 2020 - No. 61

Serious Challenges in Health Care and Social Services

All Out to Support Workers' Rights
and Voices

Suroît Hospital: Nurses' Actions Highlight the Seriousness of the Situation
Lakeshore General Hospital in Montreal: Emergency Department at Breaking Point
Rallies Across Ontario Against Government's Use of Ministerial Powers to Trample Workers' Rights - Interview, Michael Hurley, President, Ontario Council of Hospital Unions

Letters to the Editor
Letter from a Person Living in a Private Seniors' Residence in Montérégie, Quebec
The Yellow Brick Jail - Poem by a Temporary Caregiver in a Montreal Residential and Long-Term Care Centre

Serious Challenges in Health Care and Social Services

All Out to Support Workers' Rights and Voices

Each day brings more news about untenable working conditions in health care and social services and concerns that the delivery of services is reaching a breaking point. One of the salient features of this dire situation is the resignation of an ever-increasing number of nurses and other health care workers. This loss aggravates the existing acute staff shortage which has been worsened by illness and injury that force more and more workers onto sick leave. There are cases where nurses had to organize on-the-job actions such as sit-ins or refusals to show up for work because the conditions are so unsafe for themselves and their patients. The prospect of facing a predicted second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic under these conditions is daunting.

The unsustainability of the working conditions goes hand in hand with the unsustainability of the process by which the government executives are using ministerial powers to attack workers' rights and to violate their negotiated conditions, ignore their experience and expertise, their proposals, and their voice. Workers are delivering services at great risk to their health and their lives, and have to work in a situation where the decision-making process is not of their making nor the people's making. This process denies that they are the essential factor in the delivery of services and must have a decisive say in the organization of health care and social services. No matter how often and how emphatically they are called "guardian angels," they are considered and treated as a cost to the system, and as troublemakers who are disrupting those with executive power with their demands, their concerns, and their voice. This contempt for their dignity and rights, on top of the untenable working conditions, is a major factor leading to resignations and illness and heightened anxiety amongst health care workers.

Workers' Forum firmly supports all the efforts and the determination of the workers to present solutions that can alleviate the crisis for the benefit of all. Among others, these are the demands for improved staff/patients ratios; solving the problem of hiring and retaining personnel by providing proper working conditions; ending mandatory overtime; ending the practice of forcing workers to move from one place to another, especially from cold zones, where there are no COVID-19 infections, to hot zones where there are infections, and so on. Health care workers also have our full support for their demand that the ministerial orders and dictatorial laws be withdrawn. This includes the court action that the Interprofessional Health Care Federation of Quebec (FIQ) filed on July 13 against the Legault government's renewal of its March 21 ministerial order 2020-007 which violates their members' rights and continues to suspend several provisions in their collective agreement.

Workers also need space and time to exchange views on the situation, speak in their own name and assess what can be done to block the attacks on workers and the public and to provide a new direction to the health care system, to all aspects of delivery of services, and to the economy as a whole so as to build a society which is fit for human beings. Workers' Forum is working actively to facilitate the exchange of views and discussion by workers in health care and other sectors and to contribute to organizing other kinds of forums in which workers speak their minds on their situation and the challenges they are facing.

In this issue, Workers' Forum is publishing information on the conditions and fight of Quebec and Ontario workers in health and social services, along with two contributions it has received: a letter from a senior living in a private seniors' residence and a poem written by a youth who worked as a temporary caregiver in a Montreal long-term care centre.

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Suroît Hospital: Nurses' Actions Highlight the Seriousness of the Situation

Nurses at the Suroît Hospital in Quebec's Montérégie-West region say they can no longer guarantee safe patient care. The shortage of staff in the emergency room is particularly dramatic, they say. They explain that there is an occupancy rate in the Emergency Department of over 170 per cent, with only half of the necessary staff. Citing the danger to the public, some nurses refused to report for their shifts in the emergency room during the night of September 9-10.

"When health care professionals refuse to start their shifts, it is not on a whim, but because they fear for their own safety and especially that of their patients. The shortage of staff in the Emergency Department is more than glaring," said Vanessa Léger, acting president of the Union of Care Professionals of Montérégie-West.

Faced with the refusal of the management of the Integrated Health and Social Services Centre of the Montérégie-West and the Ministry of Health to ensure the safety of patients and staff, the union made an urgent appeal to the Administrative Labour Tribunal (TAT) to intervene so that measures are taken to ensure that care can be provided safely. The TAT refused to intervene, stating that it does not have the authority to do so under the Labour Code. However, nurses recall that the TAT intervened on April 8, ruling that nurses should be required to work mandatory overtime in emergencies or exceptional situations during their day without overtime pay.

"The court decided to do nothing. It can intervene against the union and its members, but not against an employer despite an urgent situation that threatens the health and safety of patients," said Vanessa Léger. The union is currently assessing all possible options for recourse.

The union points out that it has proposed several solutions, including the establishment of a joint committee to rectify the situation, incentives to retain and attract nurses, and the creation of positions adapted to the reality of the occupancy rate. The authorities are not listening.

"Care professionals have solutions. Concrete incentives must be put in place immediately to get out of this major crisis at the Suroît Hospital. In this regard, the Union of Care Professionals of Montérégie-West considers the situation extremely critical and is urgently calling for these incentives," wrote the president of the union.

(Quotations translated from original French by Workers' Forum.)

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Lakeshore General Hospital in Montreal:
Emergency Department at Breaking Point

The Montreal-West Island Union of Care Professionals has stated that the emergency nurses at the Lakeshore General Hospital in Pointe-Claire can no longer meet the population's needs due to a critical shortage of staff. The Emergency Department's occupancy rate is currently at 129 per cent, and there is a regular shortage of nurses and nursing assistants on a number of shifts.

The union explains that one of the major problems is that many nurses are on sick leave, and the necessary replacement staff cannot be recruited because of the unsustainable working conditions. It has put forward several proposals since 2018 to end the overwork and understaffing in the Emergency Department.

"We have taken countless steps to correct the situation and have quickly put action plans in place. Emergency care professionals signed a petition in March 2019, and although the employer has made efforts to correct the situation, it is not succeeding in attracting and retaining emergency room staff," said union president Johanne Riendeau.

Under these circumstances the union is demanding that the government fulfill its responsibility to deal with the crisis in a way that meets the needs of the nurses and the public.

"The working conditions are not attractive enough and the professionals are leaving on sick leave due to exhaustion. Our most recent demand is to pay nurses and auxiliary nurses double the rate, but this demand was refused. We are addressing ourselves directly to the Minister of Health and Social Services, Christian Dubé, and to the Premier, François Legault, who for the moment pay little attention to the care team and to all the care professionals who comprise it. The government must act quickly and concretely to improve working conditions and make the positions of healthcare professionals more attractive," Riendeau said.

(Quotations translated from original French by Workers' Forum. Photo: Fiq.)

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Rallies Across Ontario Against Government's Use of Ministerial Powers to Trample Workers' Rights

Kenora, August 27, 2020

Workers' Forum: The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions is at the heart of a mass action campaign to get the Ontario government to drop ministerial orders it has passed which violate workers' rights with impunity. Can you tell us more about the campaign?

Michael Hurley: Let me say first that the COVID crisis is taking a very big toll on health care and social service workers in Ontario. Sixteen have died and, as of today, 6,752 have caught COVID at work. When we compare ourselves to other countries, like China, for example, about twice as many workers have died but China has 100 times the population. They have been much more thorough at protecting their health care workforce than Ontario or Canada have.

To add insult to injury, one of the ways in which the Ontario government has faced the COVID crisis is to give itself and employers the power to override many important elements of workers' basic workplace rights. These include, for example, the right to have a defined shift, the right not to be reassigned without notice, the right not to have their job eliminated without notice. They can also bring in contractors now, and vacations and parental leaves can be cancelled in many areas.

Basic workplace rights built up over decades have been undone. Bear in mind that in most of these workplaces -- in most health care workplaces, most social service workplaces, and most municipal workplaces in Ontario where these rights are being over-ridden -- there are no COVID cases. There have never been any. There are none in the workplaces now and there are none in many of these communities. That is the reality.

What we have undertaken is a campaign, in conjunction with other unions in the Ontario Federation of Labour, to organize rallies to build consciousness and to demonstrate our opposition to the government's actions. These rallies have been successful and have been building in terms of their strength, which encourages us to hold more rallies and aim for double the number of participants in the next series. We plan to continue mobilization of the membership until our basic workplace rights are restored. We have 30 rallies planned from now to the end of October and we are going to have a second series in November and December. These rallies are being organized across Ontario. We have had rallies in Kenora, at the border with Manitoba, in Fort Frances, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, North Bay, Ottawa, Pembroke, Renfrew, Cornwall, Brockville and we are starting now into Southern Ontario.

People are very supportive of our actions when we explain what is going on. I don't think that the population of Ontario is aware that these rights have been taken away from health care and social service workers. Part of the point of having these rallies is to mobilize public opinion because we really believe that the public is grateful to these workers because they have tried to be helpful through this crisis. I do not think people expect that the government that calls them heroes is also taking away some of their most important workplace rights.

We also need to familiarize the public with the nature of what these changes mean. For example, 85 per cent of this workforce is female and 40 per cent are single parents. It has sometimes taken a worker 20 years to get day shifts, and they have small children, and now their employer can tell them that as of tomorrow they are working permanent nights, or that they are being assigned to work in another community which does not have public transit. They are told that their transit problem or their childcare problems are not the employers' concern, at a time when childcare centres are closed, emergency childcare for front-line providers is quite limited and family bubbles are small. This is a huge issue for people. We are trying to explain the impact of all this to the public. We are confident that the public will be horrified and that there is going to be increased pressure on the government.

WF: What demands are being put forward at these rallies?

MH: We have a number of demands. We are asking the government to drop the order that overrides the collective agreements of these 600,000 or so health and social service workers. That can be done simply with a Cabinet meeting. The order is part of Bill 195 which was passed in July but the bill says that the government may at any time amend or alter or delete any of these orders. So we are saying that they should use their powers to do that.

These measures were implemented first through an emergency order in March when COVID-19 first hit. That order was extended month by month and in July the government passed new legislation, the Reopening Ontario Act. That bill says that we've got the COVID crisis under control, we are reopening Ontario and yet it extends the override of these collective agreement rights for a period of at least one and up to three years. This happened in July. The bill was tabled and passed within a 10-day period. No opposition amendments were accepted. It did not go to committee. There was no opportunity for the unions to have any input into the bill. The bill was passed under a closure motion.

This is not acceptable and we are working to increase the pressure on the government to drop these measures against health care and social service workers.

We are also asking them to face up to the fact that this is an airborne virus and that the workers in these settings need to be properly protected. So far they have not been, both in terms of the guidance they and their employers receive from the government in terms of how the virus should be treated and managed, and also in terms of the protective equipment that is provided.

These are our two key demands.

Ottawa, September 9, 2020

Kingston, September 8, 2020

North Bay, September 4, 2020

Sudbury, September 3, 2020

Sault Ste. Marie, September 2, 2020

Thunder Bay, September 1, 2020

(Photos: OCHU)

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Letters to the Editor

Letter from a Person Living in a Private Seniors' Residence in Montérégie, Quebec

Workers' Forum received this letter from a person who lives in a private seniors' residence. It is written in the form of a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault.

Premier François Legault,

At the beginning of the containment, you spoke at length about the health care workers you called "Guardian Angels," about how essential they were in fighting the COVID-19 virus afflicting Quebec. At that time, we all believed that the government was wholeheartedly with them and that it would use all the resources at its disposal to help them emerge stronger from the pandemic. We, as seniors living in private residences, CHSLDs [residential and long-term care centres] or in our family homes, rely enormously on the support from these people in caring for and taking care of us. This is why we were happy that the government referred to them as Guardian Angels.

Unfortunately, your words as Premier have not lived up to your actions and responsibilities. Everyone in Quebec experienced the tragedy of the large number of deaths in CHSLDs and seniors' residences and how the virus spread because those Guardian Angels were denied the right to decide on how both residents and they themselves were to be protected. Everyone is now aware that what happened was the result of decades of government cuts and austerity measures. It's an open secret that the government doesn't want to talk about.

While you were calling health care workers Guardian Angels, you referred to us as the builders of modern Quebec. The COVID-19 virus raging in CHSLDs and private residences took the lives of thousands of the builders of modern Quebec. At that time also, we were flattered by the compliment you paid us, because it was definitely true. We are the living witnesses of the quiet revolution and important public institutions such as Hydro-Québec that have shaped Quebec to this day. We are the children of a period that saw Quebec modernize itself before our eyes, but we are also the parents of the children who continue to build our Quebec.

You are right, Mr. Premier, that we are the builders of modern Quebec. Unfortunately, once again we are being let down. We expected that this Quebec we helped build would take care of us like the apple of its eye. That's not what happened. We feel that the only use we have now is to hand over huge amounts of the money we have accumulated throughout our lives to private companies so that we can be housed and taken care of. Our pension funds and personal savings have built the fortunes of individuals who have built personal mini-empires for themselves. We're under the impression that not only did we build Quebec, now we're being asked to pay to be able to continue to live here, as if the Quebec we built does not belong to us. Moreover, you've crammed the most vulnerable and sick from amongst us into public residences without taking care of the Guardian Angels who care for them. Is this the ultimate reward the Quebec state can give to the builders of modern Quebec? I don't think so.

During the containment, you treated us like children, as if we had lost our ability to think. At our residence, we were encouraged to spend our time making little drawings, as if we were in kindergarten, rather than being encouraged to participate in ensuring our own safety, amongst ourselves as well as in collaboration with our Guardian Angels. That, in my opinion, would have been the best way of fighting the virus and of emerging from the pandemic as human beings proud of what we had accomplished.

One thing is for sure, Mr. Premier -- that unfortunately it's too late for those who have died from COVID-19. However, for those who remain, we have learned important lessons, such as that it's never too late to learn and act.

(Translated from original French by Workers' Forum.)

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The Yellow Brick Jail

Workers' Forum received the following poem. Below is the French text, then our English translation.

La prison de briques jaunes

Lorsque tous les matins,
Elle se dirigeait vers la prison de briques jaunes,
Elle enfilait son masque, sa jaquette, sa visière et ses gants
Elle prenait l'ascenseur vers les étages supérieurs
Et dans ces couloirs puants et asphyxiants bordés de cellules
Elle surveillait chaque prisonnier avec angoisse

« Non, ne sortez pas, il ne faut pas sortir,
Bientôt, bientôt, on pourra vous sortir,
Non, ne vous levez pas, vous allez tomber et vous faire mal,
Bientôt, bientôt, on viendra vous aider
Non, ne pleurez pas, il ne faut pas pleurer,
Bientôt, bientôt, on pourra vous changer »

Et lorsqu'elle nourrissait une telle résidente
Lorsqu'elle donnait à boire à un tel patient
Lorsqu'elle peignait les cheveux à une telle autre
Et lorsqu'elle offrait de l'espoir à un tel autre
Elle s'offrait ainsi à elle-même de l'espoir

Et lorsqu'elle étanchait la soif,
Elle étanchait sa propre soif
Et lorsqu'elle les soulevait,
Elle se soulevait elle-même
Ce n'était plus eux, mais elle maintenant,

Lorsqu'elle crémait un corps,
C'était toujours elle,
Lorsqu'elle rassurait un patient
C'était encore elle,
Lorsqu'elle habillait un résident,
C'était rendu elle.
Elle qui était dans la cellule
Elle qu'elle regardait dans les yeux,
Elle qui ne respirait plus,
Elle qui ne pouvait sortir,
Elle qui mourra seule,

Et après avoir fini son shift,
Après avoir donné ce qu'elle pensait de l'espoir,
Elle quittait enfin la prison de brique jaune vers chez elle,
Et lorsqu'elle s'étendait dans la nuit,
Les traces du masque et de la visière gravés dans sa chair
Il ne lui restait plus que comme seul fantôme,
Les corps perdus et les promesses brisées.

The Yellow Brick Jail

When every morning,
She'd make her way to the yellow brick jail,
She'd don her mask, gown, visor and gloves
Take the elevator to the upper floors
And from those smelly and suffocating cell-lined corridors
Watch over each of the prisoners with anguish

"No, don't go out, you mustn't go out,
Soon, soon, we'll be able to take you out,
No, don't get up, you'll fall and hurt yourself,
Soon, soon, we'll come to help you
No, don't cry, you mustn't cry,
Soon, soon, we'll be able to change you"

And when she fed one of the residents
When she gave a patient something to drink
When she combed another's hair
And when she gave hope to yet another
She offered hope to herself

When she quenched their thirst,
She quenched her own thirst
When she lifted them, she lifted herself
It was no longer them now, but her

When she put cream on a body,
It was now her body,
When she reassured a patient
She reassured herself

When she dressed a resident,
She was now dressing herself.
Herself in the cell
Gazing into her own eyes,
No longer breathing,
No longer able to go out,
She was the one who would die alone,

And after finishing her shift,
After giving what she felt was hope,
She would finally leave the yellow brick jail for home,
And when she lay down at night,
The traces of the mask and visor etched on her skin
The ghosts haunting her
Were the lost bodies and the broken promises.

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