90 per cent of Kingston hospital workers lack confidence in province’s health care plans

(Left to right) Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of OCHU/CUPE; Dave Verch, first vice-president of OCHU/CUPE; and Barb DeRoche, president of CUPE Local 1974, all spoke to the findings of a recent survey of hospital workers at a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2023. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

A new poll paints a grim picture of patient care in Kingston’s hospitals, with 43 per cent of staff saying they “dread going to work” and 90 per cent expressing no confidence in the provincial government’s plan to improve public health care.

On Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, a press conference was held in Kingston by Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU/CUPE) leaders Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer; and Dave Verch, first vice-president of OCHU/CUPE. They revealed poll findings among Kingston’s hospital workers and recommended solutions to begin healing the health-care sector — a sector they say has been ravaged by government cuts. They were joined by Barb DeRoche, President of CUPE Local 1974 here in Kingston.

The survey of Kingston hospital workers was part of a province-wide poll by Nanos Research of more than 750 staff represented by OCHU/CUPE, querying them about employment conditions, negative impacts of work on their mental health, and their confidence in the government’s plan to improve health care. The survey supplements recent research by OCHU/CUPE warning of an acute staffing crisis in the hospital sector, which is the unions say is contributing to unprecedented emergency room (ER) closures, delayed treatments, and overall poorer quality of patient care. The Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) also recently pointed to the problematic staffing crisis, calling for an independent investigation into staffing at a medical unit of Kingston General Hospital (KGH) in November 2023.

Richer said the sector continues to lose trained and experienced staff due to poor working conditions and eventual burnout amidst poor stewardship of the system from Premier Doug Ford’s government.

“The results are alarming, to say the least. How are we going to keep our hospitals functioning without staff?” said Richer.

“It’s shocking to note that the government doesn’t have a retention plan, even as we see staffing shortages contributing to a record number of ER shutdowns and hospital service closures. The whole system depends on workers, yet their needs continue to be neglected.”

Many hospital employees ‘dread going to work’

The survey revealed the mental health toll of working in Ontario’s hospitals: 62 per cent of workers polled said they were dealing with exhaustion and high stress levels; 41 per cent reported dreading going to work; and 44 per cent said they had trouble sleeping. Over half also said they were dissatisfied with their compensation.

In Kingston specifically, those numbers were even higher: 70 per cent said they had anxiety, 50 per cent reported having trouble sleeping, and 43 per cent said they dread going to work.

Further, Richer pointed out that while the Ontario statistics say 79 per cent of OCHU/CUPE hospital workers claim they are not confident about the government improving the health care system in the next year, Kingston statistics show that a staggering 90 per cent lack confidence that the Ontario government will be able to do anything to improve health care.

“Workers are stressed out because their patients are suffering; they are stressed out because working overtime and skipping breaks is not enough; they are stressed out because they can see the Ford government is not interested in addressing their working conditions or providing them fair compensation. Consequently, they simply end up leaving because they lose faith in the system,” Richer stated.

“The situation has caused a high level of moral injury to nurses and PSWs (personal support/care workers) and others feeling acute distress, knowing that the system is really designed to fail, and knowing that they’re unable to provide the care that patients so deeply deserve, and because there’s simply not enough resources for them to provide this care… We hear from members that many people are breaking down; they’re crying before they go to work knowing that their patients are going to be shortchanged. They cry during their shift, they cry after their shift, they cry during their lunch, and they break down at the workplace. And all of this is really bleeding into their personal lives.” 

According to Richer, a sense of despair at government callousness is driving workers away.

“Above all,” she said, “this suggests that unless the government is prepared to reverse its course, we’re heading to a more disastrous outcome, a more acute staffing crisis, more hospital closures, and consequently worse patient outcomes.”

Verch, the first vice-president of OCHU/CUPE who is also a 35-year registered practical nurse (RPN), said to begin to remedy the crisis, the government must invest an additional $1.25 billion annually on top of inflation for the next four years to improve staffing levels and boost capacity, which will help hospitals provide services in line with rising demand because of population growth and aging.

Rolled into the union’s demand to improve staffing levels is a proposal for staff-to-patient ratios in Ontario’s hospitals as a key measure to improve working conditions.

“We have put forward a proposal to implement staff-to-patient ratios in all hospital departments from [intensive care units] to ERs, maternity wards, and rehab units,” Verch said, pointing to research from California — where staffing ratios were implemented two decades ago — showing higher satisfaction among workers who benefit from more reasonable workloads, as well as improved patient care, including lower mortality rates. 

In 2023, British Columbia became the first province in Canada to implement nurse-to-patient ratios, Verch pointed out.

“Staffing ratios would make a huge difference by setting a minimum standard of care,” he said.

“At a time when workers are losing faith in the system, it would offer a glimmer of hope that the government is serious about fixing this crisis.”

However, he said, the government must take other complementary steps, calling for fair compensation and more full-time jobs as part of a broader human resources strategy.

“A quick note on the funding cuts: We find it unconscionable that, despite this unprecedented crisis, this year’s budget shows that the government is announcing only a 0.5 per cent increase to the province’s health care budget. And that’s when health care inflation is running to about 5.6 percent… It’s mind-boggling that a government would double down on policies that are clearly detrimental to the public health-care system. We know the two main issues driving the shortages are workloads and compensation,” Verch expressed 

“Over half of the workers polled by Nanos say they’re dissatisfied with their compensation, and this figure would no doubt be a lot higher if Doug Ford had his way and Bill 124 [wage suppression legislation] was still in effect,” he declared.

“Even as hospital workers received wage increases and nominal terms after Bill 124 was deemed unconstitutional, their real incomes declined due to inflation. And that needs to change. All workers deserve fair compensation, and that’s especially true for health care workers, who are propping up a system in the face of government cutbacks.”

Asked if CUPE believes the government is pushing for privatization by underfunding public health care, Verch said he has questions that lead him to believe so: “Underfunding a system that’s already in crisis could drive a privatization agenda. We’ve certainly seen funding for privatization go up. I think this year it has gone up 200 per cent… from the Ford government.”

CUPE Local 1974 President Barb DeRoche agreed wholeheartedly with all the information provided by her colleagues.

“I can tell you as a representative of hospital workers here in Kingston, prior to COVID, the hospital staffing levels were very, very lean. They were kept at an absolute minimum. And then COVID just exacerbated the whole issue and highlighted how much more we needed,” she said, noting that injuries and mental illness leaves have “increased exponentially over just the last year and a half.”

“[Workers’] anxiety is through the roof because they can’t help patients the way they need to be cared for… We are constantly short-staffed, and workloads are exponential. People can’t continually do this on long-term basis without walking away,” DeRoche continued, “and I don’t see any improvement happening unless we are funded properly.”

Verch picked up on DeRoche’s point in conclusion.

“We have a public health care system that can meet the needs of Ontarians if it is properly funded. We have a highly dedicated and highly motivated workforce. We’ve done more with less than any other province in Canada. We are funded less per capita than any other province,” he said.

“If our system was funded properly, I’m confident that our health care system would be there to meet the needs of Ontarians.”

2 thoughts on “90 per cent of Kingston hospital workers lack confidence in province’s health care plans

  • I applaud your publishing of this report. As a member of the health care team, this isn’t news to me, but it is great to have the public become more informed. I’ve been in the field for more than 20 years and I’ve never experienced, the kinds of struggles that we are facing in health care than the past few years. Change needs to happen at the election polls by informed citizens.
    We have two hospitals in Kingston, and I would emphasize that this is in reference to KGH, not PCH. It isn’t that I think PCH employees would likely respond much differently, but I wanted to stress this reference to Kingston’s hospital poll being KGH. It would be interesting to hear how PCH fares.

  • The only group left out are the taxpayer. Union solution to every problem is more money. The taxpayers are tapped out due to every level of government picking their pockets.

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