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SFU economist concludes that support workers are a critical part of patient care in hospitals, long-term care facilities.

A groundbreaking study released today by the Hospital Employees’ Union outlines the important contribution to patient care and safety made by health care workers who provide support services.

The study examines the claim commonly made by editorial writers, talk show hosts and many politicians that health care support work and hotel industry work is the same and that health care wages should be lowered accordingly. “Support work is critical to the efficient running of health care facilities and, in most cases, to the health of patients,” says Simon Fraser University economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen, the study’s author.

The distinction between ‘caring work’ and the work of support staff is not as clear cut as is often assumed,” says Cohen. “And it is particularly noteworthy that all health care support occupations require considerable health care specific knowledge, skills and on-the-job experience and training.”

Cohen says a 1995 Fraser Institute report upon which arguments for equating health care support work to hotel work are made are based on “faulty research, heroic assumptions and extrapolations that exaggerate the wage differentials between these two sets of workers.”

But the major problem with the Fraser Institute report is that is does not examine job classifications in hospitals and compared them with hotel workers’ jobs,” says Cohen. “It’s merely assumed that they are the same.”

Cohen made a detailed analysis of the skills, responsibilities and experiences of health care workers in laundry, housekeeping, food services, trades, and clerical positions. Some of her findings include:

-Health care housekeeping and cleaning staff are the front line against antibiotic resistant organisms (AROs) and follow special protocols when cleaning around patients infected with organisms such as Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aurous (MRSA) and Vanconycin Resistant Enterococcus (VRE). They face a range of biological and workload hazards and suffer from sky-high injury rates.

  • Hospital laundry workers must be constantly vigilant to avoid exposure to “sharps”, body parts and fluids, and other hazards that could lead to injury or infection. Some laundry workers fold operating room linens into sterile surgical bundles after checking for lint and loose fibers that could infect a patient.
  • Trades workers must be intimately familiar with the implications of the systems they work on for the safety of patients and other health care workers. They require specialized knowledge of medical equipment and on how to handle hazardous materials and substances.
  • Clerical workers, such as receptionists, interact with anxious families, inquiring reporters and handle other sensitive situations while safeguarding patent confidentiality and safety. Stores and purchasing clerks must efficiently and cost effectively obtain and deliver a complex array of medical equipment and supplies. Often, these workers must work under emergency conditions to make sure that these supplies are delivered within minutes.
  • Food service supervisors must develop specialized meals for patients with dietary restrictions. Food service workers make sure these meals are delivered to the right patient. Especially in long-term care facilities, meal time represents the high point in the day for elderly patients in terms of companionship and support. Food service workers use these opportunities to observe whether patients are eating properly.

The main point of this analysis is that the level of skills, responsibilities and working conditions of support workers are significantly different from those of workers in the hotel sector,” says Cohen. “These differences, combined with the health care specific on-the-job experience and training required, provide the basis for the higher wages for support staff in the health care sector.”

HEU secretary-business manager Chris Allnutt says that while the report’s findings won’t be news to union members, they will make it more difficult for the B.C. Liberals to carry out piecemeal privatization of the health care system.

Undervaluing the contribution of health support workers and discounting their role in providing a safe environment for patients has been an important element of a strategy to dismantle and sell off parts of our public health care system,” says Allnutt.

But this report confirms that these workers make a unique and valuable contribution to the health of British Columbians – you can’t chop up the work done in hospitals and long-term care facilities and privatize it.”

For more information, visit heu.org