August 23, 2021- No. 73

Health Care Crisis Requires Human-Centred Solutions

Alberta Nurses Say No! to
Imposition of Emergency Powers

United Nurses of Alberta Day of Action, August 11, 2021, Edmonton

BC Nurses Demand Solution to Staff Shortages

Health Care Crisis Requires Human-Centred Solutions

Alberta Nurses Say No! to Imposition
of Emergency Powers

United Nurses of Alberta Day of Action, August 11, 2021, Calgary

United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) was informed by Alberta Health Services (AHS) on August 20 that it would once again invoke the emergency provisions of its collective agreement with UNA to solve "significant staffing issues."

AHS Senior Negotiations and Labour Relations Advisor Rick Mann informed UNA in an email on August 21 that it will redeploy nursing staff, mandate overtime and cancel scheduled vacations to ensure staffing of intensive care units, emergency departments and other units, UNA informs on its website.

"Further to our previous notifications that we would be using the emergency provisions of the collective agreements, we want to let you know that the situation has progressed and created additional pressures throughout the healthcare system, with the most impacted areas at this time being the Edmonton and South Zones," Mann's email said. The AHS spokesman stated that "AHS is feeling pressure due to increasing occupancy, acuity and staff absences."

UNA Labour Relations Manager David Harrigan responded that UNA does not believe the current situation meets the definition of emergency under the collective agreement. The UNA collective agreement says, "An emergency is an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action. A situation is not an emergency if it results from a reasonably foreseeable combination of circumstances or if reasonable remedial steps could have been or can still be taken to deal with the circumstances."

Harrigan noted that "most medical professionals in Alberta have foreseen the problems now faced by AHS arising from a chronic shortage of nursing staff in Alberta health care facilities and the pressures of the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that were sure to arrive when the government and public health officials rushed to reopen the province too soon last month."

Jason Kenney declared the pandemic over in July. This was followed by the reckless decision to cancel COVID-19 testing and eliminate quarantine, an announcement that was met with a storm of opposition and daily rallies, forcing the Kenney government to take a step back and announce that it was postponing these measures. But instead of heeding the demands of health care workers including UNA and experts in infectious diseases to put proper measures in place to deal with the fourth wave, the government is again using its preferred option of arbitrary force and dictate under the guise of an "emergency." The government has not only failed to hire more nurses, but is sticking to its plan to eliminate some 750 registered nursing positions. The use of "emergency powers" is actually making the crisis worse, and is being militantly opposed by nurses across Canada and Quebec. Nurses point out that forcing exhausted nurses to work more overtime, denying vacations and imposing forced redeployment leads to more nurses becoming sick and unable to work, and more nurses deciding to resign their positions.

UNA also recently brought to light that private agencies are trying to recruit nurses at higher rates than nurses are paid working for Alberta Health Services. Despite the fact that AHS negotiators confirmed the use of third party recruiters to UNA on August 11, the Alberta government is also making the ridiculous and baseless claim that UNA is "bargaining in bad faith" by informing Albertans about what the government is up to. This certainly shows their desperation to cover their tracks as more and more people join in actions in support of the demands of nurses and other health care workers.

UNA recently held a very successful Day of Action across the province, and nurses joined by other health care workers, workers from other sectors, seniors, women, and youth and students on their picket lines. The strong spirit and determination to uphold their rights and in this way do their duty to their patients was evident everywhere. Human-centred solutions are needed which safeguard the health and well-being of the nurses, not attacks which lead to more illness and nurses resigning their jobs. Workers' Forum calls on all the workers to continue to provide all-out support for the demands of the nurses.

UNA day of action August 11, 2021

(Photos: WF, UNA)

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BC Nurses Demand Solution to Staff Shortages

BC nurses are leaving their jobs in unprecedented numbers. The CBC reported on August 20 that about two-thirds of the emergency room nurses at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops in the BC Interior had quit due to stress and burnout in recent months. Nurses throughout the province report working short-staffed on a daily basis. Throughout the province registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, care aides and others are leaving their jobs because the strain on their physical and mental health and the consequences for their families are more than they can cope with.

The failure of the government and the Health Authorities to address the staffing crisis is not just a matter of workers being stressed, overworked and burned out, as if that was not criminal enough. The greatest concern of the workers is that without enough staff, patient care is jeopardized. In speaking to CTV on August 13 a spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions reported that "nurses and health-care staff are overworked, underpaid, burnt out, and suffering moral distress because there are not enough staff to provide the care patients deserve." 

Doctors and nurses are leaving their professions as a result, many reporting that they are exhausted and completely demoralized by the government's declaration that instead of measures to support them they are being asked to work longer and harder, particularly with the government's program of increased surgeries. One nurse commented that the Minister of Health should "walk a mile in our shoes." An increase in surgical procedures, which health care workers know is needed, without addressing the problems of lack of staff and untenable working conditions, is putting health care workers and the care of the public at even greater risk than is already the case.

This is the situation that the people of BC are facing: certain areas, particularly the Interior, are experiencing an upsurge in COVID-19 cases at the same time as thousands of people have been evacuated and many more are under evacuation alerts due to wildfires. On August 21 the province reported over 4,000 properties under evacuation orders and over 18,000 on evacuation alerts. Besides the evacuation of private homes and businesses, residents of long-term care homes in five interior communities have been evacuated, most to other homes in the region but at least 100 flown to Vancouver.

The health care system in BC is in crisis. The system was in a staffing crisis before the pandemic, the shortage of staff meaning that workers were required to work excessive amounts of overtime and often work short-handed. The increased demands on nurses and all other health care workers in the conditions of the pandemic have not led health authorities to take any measures to address the problem of staffing. In fact, recent decisions have made the overwork much worse, with the BC Nurses' Union reporting that some nurses are being mandated to work 24-hour shifts.

The Ministry of Health, despite objections from health care workers, continues to insist that surgeries be increased, what they call a surgical renewal program, in spite of the strain on surgical teams whose work is much more strenuous and difficult because of the need for additional PPE and enhanced sanitation requirements to protect against COVID-19.

When responding to questions from CTV on whether it was unrealistic to pursue the surgical renewal program at this time Health Minister Adrian Dix responded in a cavalier fashion, that "This is a really difficult time for everyone and we're doing our best to support people by delivering the services, especially the surgical services that people in BC expect and deserve," ... "It is, of course, a challenge to meet the increasing demands of a society that is growing and that is aging, but I think we've done an exceptional job." Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, after acknowledging the fact that doctors, nurses and others have been under extreme pressure due to the pandemic and that many are quitting, said "I know from my personal experience in pandemics and crises we've seen that go on and on, it is not surprising to see people burnt out," ... "We all want this to be over. We all wanted this to be over last summer and we have to deal with the reality."

Health care workers throughout the country have repeatedly pointed out that words of praise and thanks for all their hard work do not solve the problem of the staffing crisis. If the government and health officials were serious about "dealing with the reality" they would not only listen to health care workers but they would follow their lead in terms of what is needed to address the problem of recruitment and retention of staff, ensuring working conditions that respect the dignity and rights of the workers and the patients in their care and vastly expanding training programs for new workers to enter the field. Health care workers are speaking out and presenting solutions and demanding they be implemented. Treating workers as disposable, as "things" that can be pushed beyond the limits, and not as the human factor that is essential to address the problems of the health care system, is not a solution.

(With files from CBC and CTV. Photos: NNU, SEIU)

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