You are not alone: tackling problems in healthcare workplaces

Christine Purdy

I am a union organizer and I hear from healthcare workers who have problems in the workplace. For anyone who has struggled with difficult conditions and situations at work, this will resonate with you.

Healthcare workers that I encounter often feel that their work life is very stressful, is giving them anxiety, or is pushing them into a decision to quit. A common hodgepodge of challenges workers experience is:  lack of respect, low wages, no voice, no seniority, no transparency, no job security, bullying, and favouritism. As a result, life outside of work becomes the collateral damage from the stresses at work: living from paycheque-to-paycheque, having to take a second or third job to make ends meet, having anxiety and stress, arguing with their partner, serious health problems…

SEIU Healthcare workers

How and why do these kind of conditions exist in the healthcare field? How can healthcare professionals take care of someone else for a living when they are not being taken care of themselves? 

Let me give you an example of the type of situation that I hear about. I recently spoke to a personal support worker (PSW) from cottage country who said that their employer is so cheap that the PSWs are given sandwich gloves to care for residents. Really?! Sandwich gloves?! They were told that if they wanted different gloves they could buy them off management for $4 a box. Wow. Just think about the communicable diseases PSWs are exposed to every day. When not provided the proper equipment they are at risk of contamination possibly compromising the health of residents and bringing that exposure home to their family. To spend money out-of-pocket for proper supplies that the company should be providing? Unfair.

At this point when a worker tells me their story, they express hopelessness and despair about ever escaping their situation. I tell them there is a solution and that thousands of healthcare workers are taking action to change things. They are getting together and forming a union to gain a voice, respect, legal bargaining rights, and in essence, their dignity back. Typically, here’s what happens when workers express that they want to form a union:

  • they talk to their co-workers about the situation at work
  • co-workers agree that things need to improve and join the efforts to form a union
  • once the workers have gained enough support, a vote is triggered at the Labour Board and workers cast a secret ballot in favor of forming their union

One can imagine how employers react when they discover employees have joined forces as a united front to take back some control over their working conditions. Employers push back because they enjoy having complete control over everything at the workplace and don’t want that to change. They know that forming a union will give staff the legal right to bargain for better conditions through the Labour Board. This is some examples of what they will do:

  • distribute anti-union letters or emails to staff
  • confuse staff with corporate-biased “facts” about all unions
  • intimidate staff
  • make promises to change

Here’s an example of the type of problem that can arise when workers decide to form a union, and how working together as a group can stand up to the challenge. Staff from a retirement home from southwestern Ontario contacted us because management did not take their concerns seriously (and would go even as far as laugh at them) when they brought issues like proper staffing levels or not having enough cutlery to feed all the residents. Staff was promised a raise when resident capacity increased. Once target capacity was reached, management then changed the conditions and said that the staff would get a raise when the number occupied suites increased. When that was achieved, management did give staff a raise, but only one quarter of the amount originally promised. These healthcare workers had enough and began to form their union.

When management found out and thought they figured out who was championing worker rights, they terminated the person the day before they were expecting a baby. Fortunately, that is completely illegal and a worker’s right to form a union is protected by the Ontario Labour Relations Act. SEIU Healthcare stood by this worker. Not only did the union help them get their job back, but they received back pay for time missed, protection from future termination, and neutrality from the employer about the union drive. The end result? The staff voted unanimously to form their union!

Maybe the boss didn’t listen before, but once the workers formed a union? There is no ignoring issues now. This is the first step in how healthcare workers can overcome adversity and ignore the boss’s attempts to intimidate.

I love the relationships and bonds that I build throughout the union drive. I hear story upon story of how healthcare workers are mistreated and undervalued. I am proud of what I do because I help find hope for the hopeless, help empower workers to take back control of their working situation, and in the end, help change their lives for the better.  I am a union organizer and I love what I do.

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