Natasha Lisun, President, Local 8, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Calgary

Local 8 represents more than 2,000 members at 17 different seniors' care sites in Calgary and surrounding areas, each with its own bargaining unit. The sites include all forms of seniors' congregate living in Alberta, from long-term care homes and designated assisted-living to lodges and retirement homes.

"The biggest issues within our bargaining units are staffing levels and paid sick time. A lot of our bargaining units are still short-staffed. The workers are overworked, they often don't take their breaks, they do not get adequate vacation time, and time to relax and not concentrate on work. This is especially true during outbreaks. New hires are not staying around long because of the work load, and the additional work on top of regular duties, for example continuous mandated cleaning that falls not only on housekeeping but also health care aides.

Sick time is another major problem. Many workers do have sick time in our collective agreements, but many have exhausted their sick time because of outbreaks and having to isolate. In some cases they are paid when they are isolating, but in other cases they are not. Rapid testing has been introduced in a lot of long-term care and retirement homes. When a worker tests positive in a rapid test and then it turns out to be a false positive, they may not be paid for the days at home waiting for the second test. Some employers have agreed to pay for this time on a case by case basis, but others have not.

Many employers have attendance management programs where workers can be given written warnings for taking above average time off, so our members are feeling they have to go to work, to show that they tried. So they face loss of income and possible reprimand for calling in sick while public health guidelines say stay home if you feel ill.

We are in negotiations with many of our bargaining units right now, and we are pushing for paid sick leave and have achieved some increases in sick leave.

Another thing that has had a big impact is the single site staffing orders which have negatively affected as many as 20 per cent of our members, resulting in lost income. At the beginning of the pandemic, they received top-up hours but these were never guaranteed and provided only if additional hours are available. It has been more than a year now and the concerns about the single staff order remain and haven't been resolved.

The single site has so many flaws, and the attempts to correct it went nowhere despite all our efforts. The policy was also flawed in containing the spread of COVID-19 from one site to another because it does not cover all workplaces. It only applies to sites with long-term care or designated supportive living beds. So you can't work in two long-term care homes, but anyone working in a hospital, retirement residence or lodge setting can also work in long-term care or designated supportive living. 

Workers who had to choose an employer were given priority for additional hours, but they were not guaranteed. Some of our members worked two full-time jobs and went down to one, or lost all their hours in excess of one full-time equivalency (FTE). We need adequate pay now and in the future so workers do not have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

As far as PPE is concerned, since last summer most of our demands have been met; we were very active in advocating on that. There could be a better supply of N95 masks, but everyone who is in direct care with COVID-19-positive patients is getting N95 masks.

Although vaccine has been offered to most of our members by now, government has not stepped in to provide information about vaccines to those who have concerns, for example whether vaccine is safe for women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Workers are left to search for information themselves. The government needs to step up and clearly communicate to health care workers and address their concerns.

What do we need going forward? Some of the wages are really low in the private system, and for the public system the government is demanding wage cuts. If workers had higher FTEs, more full-time work, paid sick leave for all, and better wages it would be a huge improvement for our members and the residents they care for.

(Photos: Unifor)

This article was published in

April 26, 2021 - No. 33

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