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There’s a clear message coming from BC to provinces considering privatizing or contracting out health support services – and it’s a warning to keep these jobs public and well-paid. A new study co-authored by CUPE researcher Jane Stinson and HEU researcher Marcy Cohen shows that instead of saving money, contracting out health support jobs and cutting workers’ wages have many hidden costs for patients, workers and communities.

The study, released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, looks at the impact of contracting out and wage cuts on health support services (which include care aids, lab technicians, licensed practical nurses, tradespeople, clerical workers, cleaners and kitchen staff). The results paint a grim picture of demoralized and financially strained workers who are experiencing high levels of stress.

The Pains of Privatization: How Contracting Out Hurts Health Support Workers, Their Families, and Health Care studies the contracting out of nearly 8,500 health support jobs and the resulting pay cut of more than 40 per cent. It used in-depth interviews with 24 workers (cleaning and food preparation staff) employed by private firms but working in public hospitals and long-term care facilities.

The study finds their working conditions to be unacceptably harsh and sub-standard in all respects: low pay, meagre benefits, heavy workloads, poor training, and no job security. Workers report declining quality of care, pointing to issues such as overwork, decreased cleanliness, less time for human contact with patients, and low workplace morale.

High quality care depends on a well-trained and well-supported staff,” says Stinson. “Contracting out jeopardizes the health and well-being of workers, their families, and patients and residents.”

Women, many of them workers of colour and immigrants, bear the brunt of contracting out and wage cuts. More than three quarters of those surveyed are raising children in poverty. Many struggle to pay rent and are holding down more than one job to make ends meet.

Wage cuts and contracting out impact people who are already economically vulnerable,” says Stinson. “The ripple effects of a family in financial crisis have far-reaching economic and social costs for communities.”

Among the study’s key findings:

  • A privatized health support job in BC is virtually synonymous with poverty. More than three-quarters of those surveyed — and all those with children — have incomes below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-Off.
  • Most of the people in this sample are immigrant women, the majority of whom (71%) have post-secondary educational credentials that would qualify them for better-paying jobs if not for the barriers that limit opportunities for internationally-trained professionals.
  • Over 40% have at least one other job to help make ends meet.
  • Understaffing, poor supervision and management policies result in nearly all participants describing their workload as hectic, exhausting and stressful. They often feel too rushed to work safely. Over four-fifths of participants report that their physical health is negatively affected by the job.
  • Quality of care is being compromised. Participants in the study detail examples of inadequate training and supervision, and improper cleaning (including of rooms with antibiotic-resistant infections). Participants report that excessive workloads have eliminated time for contact with patients/residents, and in some facilities, the company prohibits talking with patients.

The full study (available only in English) can be downloaded at www.policyalternatives.ca