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The Daily News (Nanaimo)
Thu 22 Jan 2004

Page: A3
Section: Local
Byline: Valerie Wilson
Source: Daily News
Series: Health Care in Nanaimo

Jobs in jeopardy: health union

Long-time Hospital Employees’ Union representative Dan Hingley fears for the future of health care in Nanaimo and across B.C.

Employed at Dufferin Place, a long-term care facility located adjacent to Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, Hingley says unionized workers in Nanaimo and at other facilities in the Central Island area fear for their jobs and believe it is only a matter of time before the Vancouver Island Health Authority hands out their jobs in food services and housekeeping to a private contractor.

“If they carry through we will see a complete turnover of staff, unskilled people in jobs, a private company that looks at the bottom line and a hospital that will deteriorate,” Hingley said. “There will be a big deficit in human resources, a dirty hospital and poor food services.”

Half the wages?

With HEU members making an average hourly wage of about $20, Hingley expects a private company will pay its workers $9 to $10 per hour. Not only will the health system lose, but it will also have a detrimental affect on the local economy, he said.

“Which business people in this community believe in paying health care support staff $9 or $10 per hour?” he asked. “Who will buy a car? Who will buy a new sofa? The business community needs to speak out against this.”

As a union representative, Hingley admits he was disappointed the membership rejected by 57% earlier this year a framework agreement between unions and health employers that would have seen a cap put on the number of unionized positions lost, in exchange for some concessions, including no wage increase for the duration of the current collective agreement, that too, would have been extended by two years as part of the deal.

“I believe it would have saved jobs and put our workers in a place where they would have some security,” he said.

But when he went around talking to various union locals about the contents of the tentative deal, many felt they couldn’t trust the government. Having already “ripped up” their collective agreement, a result of Bill 29, termed as “contract breaking legislation,” by health care unions, many members felt the framework agreement, too, could be reneged upon by government.

“That was the big thing I heard, how can I trust the government,” Hingley said. “There was very little selfishness of people saying ‘I want more.’”

He agreed for the most part, patients are getting good care in hospitals and residential care facilities. But the question he said, is “for how long?”

Once unionized support staff are gone, Hingley said it will create a larger workload for other health care staff and as a result, patient care will deteriorate. Currently, it is support workers who deliver meal trays to patients at NRGH, and who ensure each patient gets their proper meal.

“I know nurses are really upset,” he said. “The work for people at the bedside is going to increase. Nurses will again be delivering trays at NRGH and they will be mopping the floors.”

And in the end, he predicts it will result in more nurse burn-out that will increase sick leave and overtime costs for the health authority.

Who is responsible?

He fears for patients who are on special diets and wonders if the diabetic, for example, will get his or her proper meal.

“Who is going to be responsible?” he said. “You can’t cut workers’ wages and expect them to do the same - or more - work.”

Rick Roger, president and chief executive officer of VIHA, has said contracting out is one of the toughest decisions the organization has had to make, and that many officials are losing sleep over that decision.

But with scarce health care dollars and budget constraints, contracting out, if found to be viable, may be the only way further savings will be found in the operating budget’s allotment for support services.

“I think Rick Roger in the general sense is an honest, good person,” Hingley said. “He cares about patients. But his hands are tied. I believe he knows privatization won’t work, but his hands are tied.”

As for the government, Hingley said the B.C. Liberals have gutted Pharmacare and delisted more drugs, and he predicts government will renege on its promise to open 5,000 new long-term care beds in the province by 2006.

“They deceived us,” he said.

As a result, seniors’ residence fees are going up, and he believes user fees and taxation for health services are coming. And he said the plan to move to an assisted living model for seniors in B.C. won’t work.

“Assisted living is hotel living and you pay for it,” he said. “Seniors aren’t rich. What I see happening in the area of seniors is less home support, longer hospitalizations and no long-term care beds to go to.”

As for aboriginal people, Hingley said they are being abandoned and are not getting the same level of health care and services as the rest of the population. People with mental illness, who Hingley termed as our society’s most vulnerable population, will get fewer services.

“In Nanaimo there is a drug problem, there is an employment problem,” he said. “You never hear the health authority talk about the detriments of health anymore. All you hear about is the bottom line.”