Amanda Vyce | CUPE Research

Whether they’re administering naloxone to reverse the effects of an overdose or cleaning up sharps from city streets and libraries, CUPE members see firsthand how the opioid crisis impacts the lives of Canadians. But how is the crisis impacting them?

Crushing workloads. Extreme fatigue. Insuppressable anxiety. Grief and trauma from multiple losses: patients, patrons, clients, friends and family.

In every sector and in every province, CUPE members are seeing the impacts of opioid addiction and fentanyl poisoning on individuals and communities and experiencing the immense pressures the crisis is placing on our public services.

Across Canada, more than 10,300 people died from an opioid overdose between January 2016 and September 2018. Almost three-quarters of those deaths were caused by fentanyl.

If it isn’t clear from the statistics, then it should be from the almost daily news coverage—our country is in the grips of a deadly opioid crisis.  

Canada’s opioid crisis is a complex public health issue that stems from many different personal, social and economic factors, chief among them are a toxic drug supply and the unfair stigmatization of people who use drugs. It’s noteworthy that the growing number of opioid-related overdoses and deaths in our country affects people of all ages, races, genders, and economic classes. All of them depend on our public services for help.

Shifting front lines

In 2018, CUPE conducted a national membership survey on the opioid crisis and how it intersects with our members’ work. We now know that close to 170,000 members work on the front lines of and provide direct responses to the opioid crisis, including emergency dispatchers, paramedics, and harm reduction and hospital workers.

First responders are the members we expect to be on the front lines of a public health emergency. They respond to individuals experiencing an overdose and connect people who use drugs with counselling, health care, addiction treatment, detox and other services.

But what might surprise you is that CUPE has more than 300,000 members who, because they work with the public in public spaces, regularly encounter or are likely to encounter, opioid-related issues on-the-job that impact them both personally and professionally. These members are library, social service, municipal, and education workers, and their workplaces also place them on the front lines of the crisis. 

“We serve a lot of people who are directly or indirectly impacted by the opioid crisis,” says Thomas Krzyzanowski, Senior Branch Head at the Parliament Street Branch of Toronto Public Library. “As a result, we have tailored the public service aspect of our work to be responsive to patrons who may be impacted by opioid use—either their own or their peers’.”

As Canada’s opioid crisis worsens, its impacts are being felt by public service workers who haven’t traditionally been viewed as first responders. And as members take on roles that fall outside their original job descriptions, the front lines are shifting. 

“The opioid crisis and rising inequality have increased the amount of time we have to spend working with patrons in vulnerable situations and who may be in crisis,” says Krzyzanowski. “It has brought into sharp focus the need to provide library staff with more training and resources in order to effectively do our jobs and maintain our own mental health while doing so.”

Across the country in Vancouver, Danielle LaFrance embraces the complexities of her job as a community librarian in the city’s Downtown Eastside. LaFrance carries naloxone when she’s out on community visits and responds to patrons who appear to have overdosed.

“While working at the branch, we frequently wake folks up and ask they stay upright. The opioid crisis has shifted the way I approach a sleeping patron,” says LaFrance, a member of CUPE 391 with the nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona branch of the Vancouver Public Library. “It contributes to a chasm of anxiety for some library workers.”

CUPE members, like LaFrance, who work on the front lines, are proud that they’re saving lives and helping to address a broad range of issues related to the opioid crisis. However, the demands and pressures placed on these workers can take a heavy toll.

Impacts on members

Meeting the complex needs of our communities—and filling in for other service and staffing gaps—has left many CUPE members feeling stretched thin and without the supports they need.

“Library work involves a lot of immeasurable affective labour that, compounded with our ‘regular duties,’ can leave one emotionally drained and triggered,” says LaFrance.

According to our survey results, front-line workers are experiencing high levels of stress and stress-related injuries. They’re struggling with increased workloads, burnout, and physical and compassion fatigue. Some of them are dealing with grief, multiple-loss related trauma, and mental health injuries like PTSD. Many more require increased sick and stress leaves.

If the impacts on workers are clear, then the solutions are, too. CUPE members need safe and stable working conditions, adequate staffing levels, and better benefit plans and mental health supports to alleviate stress and burnout.

More than anything, our members need employers and governments to recognize that the work they are doing is both necessary and challenging, and to fund it accordingly.

Forward, not backward

Across the country, instead of investing in the staffing and programs that our communities need, right-wing provincial governments are denying people the supports they count on to be healthy, productive and—in some cases—to stay alive.

In Ontario, the Ford government has delivered a torrent of cuts to municipal and health care funding, children’s aid and other social services—not to mention its defunding of six supervised consumption sites in the midst of an opioid crisis—and a public sector wage cap. Meanwhile, in other conservative-led provinces, austerity measures are now business as usual. Essential public services like health care and education have been cut and bled dry, and public sector wages have stagnated or been frozen entirely.

In the context of the opioid crisis, this cost cutting is a very sharp double-edged sword. With reduced capacity and increased workload, vital services are lost to those who need it most, and workers in the sector are left depleted and traumatized.

CUPE has already appealed to the federal government to significantly increase funding to address the opioid crisis to ensure front-line workers receive the supports and resources they need. We are also fighting back against provincial public service cuts at bargaining tables, and at rallies, across the country. 

In the current political climate, it’s not enough to insist that responses to the opioid crisis also meet the needs of front-line workers. We must fight back against concerted right-wing attacks on unions and organize new public service workers. We must take a stand against cuts, restructuring, outsourcing and privatization. And we must demand that emergency, health care, social, and all other public services are adequately funded.

If employers don’t have adequate funding to meet the needs of workers, we won’t be able to sustain, let alone expand, the country’s responses to the opioid crisis—and the issues front-line workers face will continue to deteriorate.