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Ontario hospital workers unions demand action to address staffing shortages as ERs forced to shut down

Two unions representing 70,000 hospital workers in Ontario say an “all-hands-on deck-approach” is needed now to address the ongoing hospital staffing crisis, which is leading to the closure of emergency rooms across the province.

Today, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare and Canadian Union of Public Employees/Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (CUPE/OCHU) held a joint press conference where they announced they’re sending open letters to the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) and the Premier Doug Ford demanding “full transparency and staff support to fix the worsening health human resource crisis in Ontario.”

The letter to OHA outlines five action items they want to see taken including launching a website to disclose real-time staffing shortages at each hospital, weekly public press conferences on the status of hospital management’s plans for uninterrupted care delivery and keeping emergency rooms open, joint meetings with the new health minister to discuss retention and recruitment efforts on a quarterly basis, a stop to the “misleading” OHA marketing campaign and instead divert the use of those public funds from advertising to care, and lastly a commitment to filling vacancies by ending the use of agency staff and eliminate the cap on mental health support for emotionally exhausted frontline hospital staff.

“It’s undeniable that efforts to quietly manage the health human resource crisis by hospital executives are failing families,” SEIU Healthcare and CUPE/OCHU wrote, adding it’s “unacceptable that questions remain about the precarity of hospital care.”

“The public, and our members serving on the frontline, deserve to know more about what is leading to closed doors, longer wait times, and service disruption inside Ontario hospitals. We’re calling on the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) to provide real answers, public commitments, and transparency into the crisis.”

In the letter to Ford, the unions request an urgent meeting with him to discuss solutions to addressing staffing shortages. They also ask for his commitment to recruiting back “thousands” of nurses, personal support workers, paramedical, service, and other staff who are no longer working, enabling all staff work to their full scope of practice, banning the use of nursing agency staff, increasing wages, putting in place financial incentives, and working with unions and employers to increase the amount of full-time work and reduce workplace violence in healthcare.

“We are now at the point where understaffing is chronic and cannot maintain the system the people of Ontario expect,” they wrote.

This morning, Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, said the “dire situation” hospitals in Ontario are dealing with can be resolved when those who run them start treating staff like people, instead of a “commodity.”

“We're calling on hospital executives to bring transparency to the crisis and be accountable to the public about the full state of the hospital prices. Patients and staff deserve more information as well as a commitment to urgent action now,” she said.

“We look forward to their response and commitment on these items because the public and our hospital staff deserve real accountability in this ongoing crisis.”

Michael Hurley, Stewart’s counterpart at CUPE/OCHU, said hospital staff in Ontario are an “exhausted and anxious workforce.”

“It's ground down by the lack of support it's had and it needs to be supported now, in order for it to come through for the people of Ontario,” he said.

“We are alarmed that today we have seen no sense of urgency from the provincial government in the face of unprecedented threat to our communities. … We are very concerned that without a meaningful action plan, conditions will deteriorate further in our hospitals.”

Registered practical nurse Justine Champagne says frontline hospital workers across the Ontario are “exhausted” and “burned out” and feel they’re being treated poorly.

“PSWs, porters, nurses, all of us, we’re treated like cattle and the people running our hospitals are dragging us into the ground and away from the bedside. Management needs to recognize people do not leave workplaces because of the work they signed up for. They leave because of poor management, being overworked, underpaid and feeling unappreciated,” she charged.

“Our job is to care for people not speak at a press conference about the demoralizing and decaying state of our healthcare system, and poor treatment of staff and how ill-equipped we are to provide the exemplary care that so many Canadians desperately need.”

Champagne says the number of patients she cares for has increased due to inadequate staffing levels resulting in “chaos”, “physical, mental and emotional stress” and patients in need of assistance being left in hospital hallways “because they didn't have porters to help move them.”

She also said being called back in to work the next day at 7:30 a.m. after completing an eight or 12-hour shift the day before is becoming more common.

“We're breaking down. The entire system is breaking down,” she said.

Fellow nurse Pam Parks agreed.

Last fall, she joined dozens of RPNS and other hospital workers at Queen’s Park in calling on the provincial government to “act to keep nurses, like me, PSWs, porters, cleaners, clerical, occupational and physio system maintenance and others working in our hospitals.”

“Because so many of us have been leaving healthcare, we want the premier to take action that included permanent, better wages and an end to the PC wage caps, less risk of violence against us and improved protections, but he didn’t listen to us,” Parks said, adding hospital staff are feeling “very demoralized, exhausted, and undervalued.”

“And now while still dealing with a pandemic in the Seventh Wave, my hospital and majority of hospital across Ontario are in a full blown crisis mode. We are on life support because there's just aren't enough of us to deal with patients coming into the hospitals.”

Parks said its “crushing” for “beyond burned out” hospital and long-term care workers to not be able to timely care for or even care for patients at all, or provide them with the level of care they deserve.

“Today I'm here to tell the premier that I don't know how much more our frontline staff can bear,” she said, adding some days she goes home in tears because she knows she has “not provided the care I know I should provide for my patients.”

“The workload is tremendous. It's unbearable.”

Hurley said an estimated 20,000 more hospital workers are needed in Ontario to address the shortfall in the healthcare system, which he noted was already “significantly understaffed” before the COVID-19 pandemic and inadequately funded “for a very long period.”

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