More than 26,000 health-care workers in Ontario have contracted COVID-19 at work and 24 are believed to have died, a workers’ union claims.
The statement was made by Michael Hurley, vice-president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario, citing government data, during a virtual press conference on Thursday morning, calling for the urgent repeal of Bill 124 – Ontario’s one per cent wage increase cap per year on public sector employees – amid a surge of Omicron infections straining understaffed hospitals.
“During the pandemic, these health care workers could not get access to the protective equipment they needed to work safely,” he said.
“This feeling that no one cares about their safety is a key factor in the demoralization of health care workers.”
A repeal of the bill, Hurley said, would ensure health-care staff were properly compensated for increased risk and workloads during the Omicron surge, which was exacerbating a health-care worker shortage across the country.
Representatives from CUPE, which represents 190,000 health-care workers across Canada, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents 60,000 workers, were joined at the press conference by leaders of Ontario’s opposition parties: NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner.
Currently, 1,000 staff were off sick in the long-term care sector alone, president of SEIU, Sharleen Stewart, said.
“As recently as two days ago, we saw nursing home operators calling hotels and restaurants to see if they can bring their dietary restaurant staff into the home to take care of the nutritional needs of the residents,” Stewart said.
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The bipartisan call to repeal Bill 124 comes as Ontario Premier Doug Ford this week announced several new COVID-19 public health measures, including moving schools online and enacting restaurant and gym closures and capacity limits as the province struggles to contain the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Ontario on Thursday reported 2,279 patients in hospital with COVID-19, including 319 people in intensive care.
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However, union representatives say the restrictions are not enough to blunt the wave of transmissions and a potential exodus of health-care workers who will leave the profession when the pandemic is over.
Stewart said internal polling had shown between 20 and 35 per cent of the union’s health-care members were thinking of leaving the workforce due to the working conditions. Hurley said this represented about 20,000 nurses and 50,000 other health-care workers between the two unions.
This would exacerbate a critical shortage of staff that preceded the pandemic and is now being exacerbated by burnout and the mental stress of working under gruelling conditions.
“It’s dangerous. Mistakes are happening at the bedside because of burnout because of shortage of staff,” Stewart said.
“It also means the growing backlog of surgeries and procedures will result in unnecessary suffering and death.”
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While Stewart admitted that there was not “one single solution for this problem,” repealing Bill 124 would provide an incentive for many to stay in the profession while more long-term solutions to improve working conditions are worked on.
Hurley said internal polling showed 87 per cent of health-care workers thinking of leaving their jobs would reconsider if they received a wage increase.
“People are holding on now just out of loyalty to the people of Ontario and to their co-workers.”
A lack of mental health support in the sector was further fanning the flames of burnout, Hurley said.
“(Workers) are exhausted physically and emotionally and they are vulnerable to falling ill.”
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Horwath said the Ontario health system was “falling apart before our eyes” and was now in “a total crisis.”
“Doug Ford is sitting on his hands. And in fact, (he is) not only not doing anything, but making things worse with Bill 124,” she said.
Del Duca said a bipartisan approach was important to achieve action.
“It’s important for the opposition leaders to stand together, because this is a moral imperative for us to get this right,” he said.
“I think this is a particularly important moment with the health-care system really on the brink, that the premier sees all of us working across party lines for the people of Ontario, and ask him to come to the table as well and work across party lines.”
No comment from Ontario government
Horwath and Hurley again criticized Ford’s mention of “absenteeism” during a press conference this week, in which the premier said various sectors were being strained due to workers being sick or requiring mandatory isolation after a COVID-19 exposure or infection.
Horwath said it was the government who had been absent, while Hurley said the term was offensive to health-care workers who had only fallen sick due to a lack of protection at their workplaces.
An Ontario government spokesperson refused to answer specific questions about plans for further investment in the health-care sector during the current Omicron surge and whether the government would consider repealing the bill. They also declined to offer any comment to workers who felt offended by Ford’s comments.
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Instead, the spokesperson said the opposition’s “record in the legislature speaks for itself.”
“They have routinely voted against our government’s ongoing efforts to shore up more resources in our health-care system.
“Every step of the way they have blocked, slowed down, or voted against billions of dollars in important health care investments.”
In November 2021, the Ontario government announced as part of its fall economic statement that it’s investing $342 million to add and upgrade the skills of more than 5,000 registered nurses and registered practical nurses and 8,000 personal support workers.
Another $57.6 million will go toward hiring 225 more nurse practitioners in long-term care.
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