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CUPE: Kingston hospital staff ‘exhausted and demoralized’ during pandemic

Kingston General Hospital, a KHSC site. Photo by Lucas Mulder.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is reporting that staff morale is low and stress is high at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued for nearly a year.

Citing months of “gruelling long hours, critical staff shortages, and an environment where there is no pay for staff who have to isolate or quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19,” Barb DeRoche, President of CUPE Local 1974, said the nearly 2,000 union members here in Kingston are “exhausted and demoralized.”

“The promised supplementary payment to personal support workers (PSWs) has yet to materialize. The constant thought of risk because of inadequate access to appropriate protective equipment and increasingly low staffing levels as the hospital capacity is stretched, are contributing to the feeling among the hospital workforce that they are largely unsupported. Morale is very low,” DeRoche said in a statement released by CUPE on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

According to CUPE, the number of healthcare workers in Ontario who have contracted COVID-19 was almost 8,000 at the beginning of November 2020, a number which has almost doubled to 15,000 currently, based on government data.

“As many health care workers have become ill from COVID-19 in the last three months as became ill in the previous 10,” said Michael Hurley president of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE).

Hurley said that hospital staff work in a high-risk environment, and that they are often not provided with the protective equipment needed to keep safe.

“If they come into contact with or contract COVID-19, they won’t be paid to isolate or quarantine. In half of cases, their Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claim will be challenged. It is no wonder that they feel abandoned by the Ford government, as 91 per cent of our members indicated to us in polling,” he said.

As such, CUPE and OCHU are calling on the Ford government to provide the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and pay for exposure or illness due to COVID-19, the union said.

“This is the minimum the government can do to show that they’ve got hospital workers’ back,” said DeRoche.

UPDATE from KHSC

Following publication of the article on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, Sandra Carlton, Joint Vice-President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Kingston Health Sciences Centre provided the following comment in response to the matter:

The safety of all staff as essential health care workers is a top priority at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), which means we ensure that the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is available to everyone who needs it, when they need it and where they need it. KHSC’s safe and responsible use of PPE is guided by the expertise of our Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) and Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness teams. We also closely monitor PPE supplies, rigorously assess PPE protocols, and quickly adapt and adjust PPE requirements as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. To date, no KHSC staff member has acquired COVID-19 in the workplace.

In regards to hospital staffing, KHSC recognizes that this continues to be a challenge across the health care system, not limited to our own sites. Throughout this pandemic, KHSC has successfully ensured sufficient staffing has been in place to provide safe and timely patient care. We also continue to actively recruit new hires to both maintain staffing levels within our hospitals while also balancing additional staffing needs for vital COVID-19 activity such as lab testing, assessment centre work, screening requirements and vaccination clinics.

KHSC strongly supports the importance of continuing to pay any staff member who is required to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure in the workplace. We also continue to work closely with the provincial government to expedite wage enhancements for personal support workers (PSWs). We will continue to review and adapt our practices related to employee pay entitlements associated with COVID-19 in response to guidance from the province.

KHSC is extremely proud of how our staff members have faced and overcome the ongoing challenging during this COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone at KHSC is working steadfastly together to find creative solutions to these challenges, which includes the appropriate use and sourcing of PPE; efficient and effective COVID-19 testing; screening staff members, patients and visitors; now vaccine distribution, and so much more that has all been accomplished at an extraordinary pace over the past year. We are incredibly grateful for the hard work and dedication of all KHSC staff members to providing high-quality patient care to Kingston area residents and beyond.

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