Warning message

Please note that this page is from our archives. There may be more up-to-date content about this topic on our website. Use our search engine to find out.
There was an issue widely known and workload was its name-O. Were sick of working overtime and taking all the blame-O.

Too much work and not enough people to do it. The problem extends throughout CUPEs vast and diverse membership. No matter what sector you examine, you will find this modern epidemic chewing at workers lives. Here is a brief look at some sectors.

Health care

There isnt a CUPE health care worker in the country that wouldnt identify workload as a major cause of stress and injury.

In fact, stress is the window on workload that CUPEs Hospital Employees Union in BC has taken with its Workplace Anti-Stress Guide.

On-the-job stress is out of control, says the guide, and workers are paying the price in injuries, poor health, anxiety, conflictand worse. HEU advises that stress caused by overwork is not a personal problem, its an organizational problem. The only way to change it is to change the workplace. Stress is preventable and fixable, they argue.

HEU has also advised members to record how many people they are short on each shift. The Short Shift campaign has raised awareness of the overload problem, helping to show how many workers are away due to stress and other overload-related problems.

In Nova Scotia, a first-ever bargaining survey was sent to 3,000 health care workers this summer. It included 30 questions on workload, the largest section in the survey. Full results are not yet available, but early signs suggest that workload will figure heavily in bargaining next spring.

And Saskatchewan health care workers are focusing their efforts on workload this fall.

Emergency services

The biggest workload concern for paramedics is that there just arent enough of them to cover all the calls.

Were busy non-stop in urban centres during our 12-hour shifts, says Stuart Myers, with CUPE 873, representing BC ambulance paramedics. We start at 6:30 a.m. No lunch hours. Not even time to take care of bodily functions sometimes.

After traumatic calls, like car accidents, stabbings or shootings, paramedics need a moment to take a little breather and flex yourself mentally, says Myers. That isnt possible with the current workload. At 4 a.m., after going all out, you are not necessarily at your peak. We could be putting people at risk when we respond to a traumatic call at that point, he says.

It is not uncommon to arrive at the hospital with a patient on the stretcher and just have to leave them in whatever space is available and get back out on another call, says Myers. You dont have time for anything else.

Overwork can bring tragedy as well. It happened in the mid-1990s in Maple Ridge, BC. A two-year-old girl was choking on a piece of sausage and we had two units tied up at a hospital, recalls Myers. The next available unit was 13 minutes away. The little girl died.

With paramedics taking 13-16 calls a shift, there is no way they can continue to increase the workload. Local 873 is lobbying the provincial government to set minimum staffing standards. They asked for an under-eight-minute response time. The government could add ambulance units or increase the number of stations so the distances are shorter.

The workload issue is on the Local 873 bargaining table, mostly because paramedics are concerned that they cant deliver the service they want to deliver. But its also about workplace injury caused by overwork.

We are seeing a rise in the number of workers compensation claims from paramedics, Myers says. And the correlation between workload stress and workplace injury is clear.

To press their point, Local 873 has also taken it to the streets. Through a province-wide campaign called Fighting for Life, the paramedics are telling the public what kind of service is needed. They are also telling the government to address the workload problem.

We want to deliver emergency health services within a system that is going to save lives, Myers says. But with our current workload that becomes harder and harder to do.

Nursing homes

Staffing problems at the 180-bed Ocean View Manor in Nova Scotia illustrate the complexities of the workload problem throughout the sector.

We have vacant union positions and no one to put in them, says Mary Walker, president of CUPE 1245 with 125 members, mostly women. And dont tell me there arent people looking for work out there.

She says the problem stems from a government requirement that every new hire must have a personal care worker certificate or PCW. To get one you have to go to class and pass a provincial exam. This all comes out of your own pocket, says Walker. And without the certificate they wont hire you.

Consequently we dont have enough staff and people are being denied their statutory holidays and their vacation leave. Its happening in all the homes, she says.

Staff are also using more sick time because theyre exhausted. There are more injuries due to the heavy workload. And more people are off with LTD claims.

All the stress is having a negative impact on residents and their families. Management gets us to work short, she says. That means staff are expected to cut corners to make up for the shortage of staff.

When families come to visit and see Mom all dressed up and sleeping in the corner at 5 p.m., they dont realize that shes been there since the night shift woke her at 6 a.m. because they knew the next shift might not have time.

Our residents are paying for working short-staffed, Walker says. And so are our members.


New Brunswick school secretaries have had their work hours steadily cut and regularly get asked to work unpaid hours to get the job done. Some of their work involves making sure children are safe.

They rightly fear that when a parent calls wondering where little Sally or Johnny is they might one day get a voice-mail message. They also have serious staff shortages during peak times such as the beginning and end of the school year.

CUPE 2745 is now circulating a petition that it plans to present to the NB legislature later this year. It says secretaries working in the schools in NB are facing a major workload problem.

Earlier this year, the local prepared a brief on the workload situation. They presented it to the education minister but were rudely rebuffed.

Secretaries have not enough hours to do their work, says the brief. The problem is that the number of duties is increasing all the time and the hours are not. This situation has to be resolved with an increase in staff or an increase in hours.


Our members pick up 13-16 tonnes of waste each day, says Ernie Dion, president of CUPE 1338, representing Ottawa waste management workers. “Thats equivalent to two and a half football fields full of garbage bags. And they do it on every 10-hour shift.

The resulting back and shoulder injuries and the added stress are plaguing many of the 200 local members.

We used to have three or more workers on shift to pick up garbage and recycling. Then the bottom line happened and private companies wanted more money, says Dion. Now weve got one or two workers depending on the truck.

The biggest culprit when it comes to overwork, though, is the dreaded sideloading refuse truck. You work alone, drive on the left side and get in and out of the truck to do the pick-ups.

Many people are finished for life because of sideloaders, says Dion. No way a man could work a sideloader and retire doing that job. Hed be in a wheelchair first. It destroys your back, your shoulders, everything. Even the 50-pound limit set by the city is too high and you have to lift much higher than for a rearloader.

Sideloaders came in about seven years ago and have spread through the municipal sector. Private companies make more money using them and they can always count on younger workers to speed up the pick-ups.

Weve asked the city to put more safety features on the sideloaders. We are also trying to slow down our younger guys, says Dion. But they dont want to hear how too heavy a workload is unsafe and could ruin their lives. When youre young you think you are invincible.

The toll on members who work regular overtime shifts of 12-15 hours, especially on sideloaders, is underlined by increased workers compensation claims. It is also revealed in the increasing number of older municipal workers who are off taking courses. They know they are finished due to the workload. They are learning computer skills so they can find new jobs.

Legal aid

People were so fed up that they took their first major job action with a two-week work-to-rule campaign in mid-1999, says Deb Hopkins, president of CUPE 1949, representing Saskatchewan legal aid workers. The outcome was a workload clause the local quickly used in its fight to deal with overload.

People in our legal aid system tend to be lifers. They got tired after years of the same old thing, says Hopkins, a legal aid lawyer with a caseload of at least 100 criminal law case files and about 50 family law case files at any given time.

We grind along with way too much work and not enough lawyers or support staff, Hopkins said. There are about 60 lawyers and 60 support staff in the local. Even though the mandate has been narrowed to restricted family law and criminal law cases where the person is likely to go to jail, it is a huge burden.

Ive got 10 break and enters tomorrow alone, Hopkins said. Then there are the bail hearings. Ive got a 14-year-old with two cases of stolen property against him. And four days a month Im in adult bail court with disclosures arriving at 3 p.m. Thats several hundred pages to review by 10:30 a.m. the next day.

Were dealing with the poorest of the working poor and those on assistance, she added. Many are young aboriginal people.

For this, they get paid $10,000 less a year than their counterparts in the Saskatchewan government. Local 1949 members work for an independent commission funded by government.