The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union is questioning why demands for health-care support workers to receive COVID adjustment pay have gone unanswered by the provincial government.
The union has sent two letters to Health and Seniors Care Minister Audrey Gordon, dated Dec. 20 and Jan. 10, asking for COVID premiums for health-care support workers, said MGEU president Kyle Ross. To date, the union has yet to receive any response. The letters call on the provincial government to provide COVID premium pay for health-care support workers working in hospital emergency departments and personal care homes in outbreak situations.
"It has been challenging. We have been advocating for our members," Ross said. "They’re working shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are getting it [COVID-19] in the same environment and not being treated the same. It’s just not fair."
MGEU is calling for a pay adjustment for staff — about 15 members — who work in the Brandon Regional Health Centre emergency department for as long as there is a pandemic, as well as for the 3,200 members who work in personal-care homes during an outbreak.
Personal support workers, sometimes referred to as health-care aides, help manage the daily tasks of patients dealing with illness or injury or the effects of aging. They work with a health-care team to provide patient care in a variety of settings, from hospitals to private homes.
Ross said these health-care workers are not being treated equitably because they are not receiving the COVID premium. He hopes changes are coming because MGEU wants members to feel supported and valued in their jobs.
"The government had indicated they wanted to open a new dialogue with us when the new premier was elected … [we sent the letters] and they did not respond. I guess you could say [the conversation] is one-way right now," Ross said. "We hope we can change that and work this out together, but it’s frustrating."
While members would appreciate seeing the implementation of COVID adjustment pay, he said, more steps are needed to establish a good-faith relationship.
The inequity of pay has created hardship for health care support workers because they have to work in a challenging environment that has only become more difficult during the pandemic while being short on staff.
"It’s not good for everyone," Ross said. "It’s still a difficult environment with COVID."
Exposures to the virus are becoming more pressing because of how contagious the omicron variant has proven to be, he added.
"It’s why we are advocating for this COVID adjustment pay for people to feel like they are taking on these challenges," Ross said. "While they’re wearing PPE on the scene, there is still that risk. It’s scary for them, it’s frustrating."
Recruitment into health care is difficult due to the adversity of the job, and it has only become more challenging during the pandemic.
With the current vacancies, the job is becoming increasingly gruelling for all staff, and it is hard to encourage people to enter the health-care industry when they are dealing with situations like the lack of COVID adjustment pay.
When asked if walkouts were a possibility, Ross said: "We are working towards some resolutions on those issues that are challenging for our members. That’s where we are right now, but that may change in the future."
The Brandon Sun spoke with two staff members at the Brandon Regional Health Centre — a man and a woman. The paper agreed to withhold their names to protect the safety of their employment.
The duo said it has been disappointing to see the provincial government fail to provide COVID adjustment pay for health-care support workers who work alongside others receiving the pay in the emergency department.
"The entire system is fed up," the male staffer said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, patient counts at the hospital have risen exponentially. Speaking candidly, they estimate the patient load in the emergency department has tripled.
"There is no hope — the hope was lost a long time ago, hope in our government," he said. "I have not worked a shift in weeks where I have not seen one of my fellow staff members — be it a nurse, a doctor, a health-care aide, a clerk … where I have not seen one person crying on that shift. That to me is sad — everyone is feeling exhausted."
The inaction of the provincial government has affected morale across the entire hospital, his colleague added, especially because the discrepancies in COVID adjustment pay feed into a feeling of segregation.
"It’s put a wedge there that wasn’t there before, this whole pay issue," she said.
It has been frustrating and demoralizing to be experiencing exposures to the virus when they are not receiving the same premiums as their co-workers in the hospital.
The female hospital worker noted the shift premium is not based on skills or education — it is based on the hazard of COVID exposure.
While the hazard pay would not change the day-to-day experience of their jobs, she said, it would serve as an incentive for others to help out and pick up shifts that would enhance the care patients receive.
"Right from the very beginning, when that COVID pay was announced anybody who worked in that building shook their heads and said why is the ED [Emergency Department] not put on that list?" the male staffer said. "The front doors of the hospital are the ED. Every COVID patient admitted to the hospital goes through the ED."
He said the rollout of premiums was "bungled from the start," and it has been disappointing to see the provincial government continue to refuse including emergency department workers.
"We feel a little segregated out," the female staffer said. "Why do our lives not matter?"
These pressures have led to them seeing workers in the building quit "for greener pastures."
"I’ve heard it from people that, ‘I’m going to work at Giant Tiger because they are going to pay me a dollar less an hour, but I don’t have to deal with this," he said. "The workload has gotten so extreme it has burnt us out."
The discrepancies in COVID pay have also impacted how the hospital is run, the female staffer alleged. People are opting to work in positions where they can receive the pay, adding to the workload those in the emergency department face as they remain uncompensated.
"There’s no incentive to come down to emergency and help out," she said.
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said the organization supports the push by MGEU to secure COVID adjustment pay for health-care support workers.
In the last two years, work within health care has been dramatically changed by the global health crisis.
"What I’m hearing from nurses in facilities is that their workload has gotten progressively larger over the past two years. They are carrying bigger patient loads than they’ve carried in the past. They are working extended hours on a regular basis," Jackson said.
Nurses have received the adjustment, and it was extended to four emergency departments — the Brandon Regional Health Centre, and at Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital, Grace Hospital and Health Sciences Centre.
These issues of workload have only been compounded by the nursing shortage in the province, she said — a situation that is just becoming progressively worse due to early retirements among health-care workers opting to leave the public health-care sector.
"There’s a lot of frustration out there, and there’s a lot of anger," Jackson said. "Nurses are upset. They’re angry because they are the ones that are working the double shifts that are doing everything to glue the system together at the expense of patient care."
The nursing shortage has been building for years, but partnerships like the one with MGEU help provide health-care workers with a sense of hope.
"It’s one huge team, and the problem is that if there is someone on the team missing, the rest of the team has to pick up the slack," Jackson said. "I think it’s important to note that we don’t do anything that’s not teamwork in health care. I think it’s time for this government to stand up and be counted when it comes to recognizing the challenges that the health-care workers in this province have met over the past few years."
She believes that if health-care support workers are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other staff, they deserve the same benefits.
"We talk about how we need to keep nurses in nursing, how we need to keep the team together. But it’s only when we are in a critical situation when there is no other option but to be fair that we see this government actually stepping up. Nothing is ever done until we are in dire straits — this is unsustainable," Jackson said. "It is imperative that this government maintains every health-care worker in the system right now. This is all about retention."
The Brandon Sun requested an interview regarding COVID adjustment pay for health-care support workers via email and phone on Saturday and Sunday from the Manitoba Ministry of Health and Seniors Care. No response was provided by the publication deadline.
Shared Health declined to provide comments to The Brandon Sun.
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