By Valerie Lannon
May 15 saw dozens of front-line health workers protest outside a hospital in Toronto, supported by a cavalcade of allies in their cars. They were protesting the workers’ exclusion from the Ontario government’s “pandemic pay” (an extra $4 per hour) that is supposed to partly compensate for the health risks being taken by frontline workers.
Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 3000 represents over 400 health professionals including phlebotomists (who draw blood samples), lab technicians and technologists (who test and analyze samples), sonographers and other medical imaging technologists (who perform diagnostic imaging), cardiac technicians and technologists (who work in labs and cardiac device implant labs), and other screening technologists. One could not be more of a front-line worker being exposed to COVID than these folks, yet their positions have been excluded from the “pandemic pay” provision.
They have also faced insufficient supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) including gowns, face masks and gloves. And there have been COVID outbreaks at the hospitals where they work. Spring Magazine is pleased to respond to a request from LiUNA to publicize the union’s concerns and demands. Spring interviewed union staff member Charlene Nero, as well as a hospital employee, to learn more about these issues first hand.
What is your job and how has it changed since COVID?
Hospital worker [HW]: I work at a hospital. We are required to wear masks and visors. This makes breathing very difficult. To give you an idea of what it is like, think about trying to perform the same tasks at a high altitude where the oxygen saturation in the air is reduced. We are breathing in our own CO2 mixed with the oxygen. This makes physical activities, concentration and problem solving much more difficult. We experience daily headaches, dry throats, and exhaustion.
But our troubles don’t end there, for those of us relying on public transportation we have an entire new set of problems after we walk out of the front door. I frequently have to get off of the streetcar and wait for another one because of people screaming violently and or punching and kicking at the walls and the seats. Having to be subjected to this is unacceptable. We are literally risking our lives coming into and going home from work every day.
What was the mood at the May 15 solidarity event?
HW: The mood at our solidarity event was one of respect and support for us. To hear and see so many pedestrians waving, drivers honking their horns, people making the heart symbol with their hands, and all of those yelling thank you was heart-warming and encouraging that the government would include us in the pandemic pay increase. To date that has not happened.
Charelene Nero [CN]: Our members, allied health professionals at St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s hospitals, feel angry and disrespected because of lack of PPE and lack of inclusion for pandemic pay. It was our membership who initiated the action, and it was not like other actions we have been taking since the pandemic, for example petitions, letters to politicians, and engaging our union’s international office’s government relations staff.
A number of factors combined to spark this action. We found out there was a significant COVID outbreak in the hospitals. It didn’t involve our members, but we knew there was a workplace outbreak and if, as the hospitals claim, the PPE is adequate, then this should not have been possible. Reporting systems for hospitals were only put in place a few weeks ago so we don’t know the number of those infected.
Members are wearing the same PPE into and out of rooms of COVID patients, not N95 masks, as the hospital was not providing them. So they’re wearing the same mask and visor, in hallways, elevators and going to non-COVID patients. So they don’t think they’re being listened to regarding PPE and they don’t feel they’re being respected regarding COVID or pandemic pay.
The other big factor, and what people have lost sight of, is that for the last two months hospital employees have had their legal rights, their employment contracts, suspended. Workers can be deployed anywhere, and schedules in collective agreements don’t apply. Vacations can be cancelled, you can be forced to work on holidays and on different shifts. Workers are being told by public health officials they should stay home but hospitals are ordering them in. This is especially acute for lab workers as they are now swamped and they are the ones who, in a record amount of time, are getting test results on line, in an entirely new format.
One longstanding employee was ordered to travel across town by public transit no less, to a different hospital than where they normally work. So our position is that every person covered by contract or collective agreement, if their work is so essential that their fundamental rights can be suspended, then they ought to get pandemic pay. We will do whatever it takes to protect public health but the government has suspended their rights. The exclusions make no sense.
Why is it important for ALL workers to be protected and receive “pandemic” pay?
HW: We are all performing an essential service and we all go out there every day risking the health and safety of ourselves and our families. The medical system cannot work without us. We perform the services that provide your doctor with the imaging required to aid in the diagnosis of your medical condition, or the well-being of your unborn child. Radiographers (commonly referred to as x-ray techs) are taking your chest x-rays etc. and are also not included. I believe that no medical imaging professionals have been included. Phlebotomists (lab technicians) are not included. Our front line reception and clerical staff are not included. Our social workers are not included, but social workers in the jails are.
CN: Pandemic pay is a small gesture of respect but it doesn’t pay what workers ought to be earning. It is an issue of unfairness that some do not get it. It is also small compensation for what workers are being asked to do, like different jobs that weren’t theirs previously. We don’t want people to get danger pay because we don’t want people to be in danger. Our workers are on a different kind of “lockdown”, i.e. going into work, walking directly into hospitals, into a COVID-19 outbreak, because that’s where infected people go. A porter assisting a phlebotomist gets the extra pay but the phlebotomist does not!
What has been the impact on members from lack of PPE and lack of pandemic pay?
HW: It is our hope that this (exclusion of us) was an oversight on our government’s behalf. But as time passes and no new inclusions are made we are becoming very disheartened that our work is not considered as valuable as the work of those included in the pandemic pay increases.
CN: It’s destroying their morale. The solidarity political action was empowering but the ongoing lack of respect is destroying morale. Think about what it would feel like if every day you had to go someplace where you knew the virus was lurking and you had to go home to family and loved ones. And now you get a slap in the face with no pandemic pay. And there are no signs these measures, these suspension of collective agreement rights, are ending anytime soon even as the economy “opens.”
Is there coordination with other unions?
CN: Yes, both formal and informal. We are active in the OFL and CLC. Our local coordinates with other unions for example in community health. When CUPE had an action we supported that. We support initiatives with allies like Fight for $15 and Fairness and the Decent Work and Health Network.
How can non- LiUNA folks support you?
HW: I’d like to see several spots on TV and internet news. Most people in the general public have no idea that none of us are included in the pandemic pay. Public education and petitioning of the government is key I feel. If the people are in support of us, the government will be more inclined to include us in the pandemic pay.
CN: People can sign our petition calling on Unity Health Toronto to extend pandemic pay to all hospital employees. Our members want to make sure we learn the lessons from today and put sick days in place permanently and have meaningful access to WSIB for all. We support public health, good working conditions, and support for the determinants of health. There may be other solidarity actions at other workplaces so we will keep you informed so all supporters can come out.
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