By Graeme Cheadle
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the world, frontline workers here in Canada are increasingly worried about their own safety, the health of their patients, and problems with underfunding and a lack of personal protection equipment. Spring Magazine recently interviewed Amrita Parmar, a licensed practical nurse at an assisted living facility in BC, to get some of her thoughts on the crisis, what she and her co-workers are most concerned about, and solidarity with other workers. Amrita will be speaking at Spring’s upcoming webinar “The Healthcare Crisis: Why workers’ rights are key to confronting the pandemic” on Sunday, April 19 at 1pm EDT.
How long have you worked in your current position, and what does your typical work entail?
I’ve worked at this facility for about two and a half years now. My main duties are to administer medications, perform wound care, documentation, maintain the health of our residents and coordinate with the other staff in the facility.
Is your workplace unionized?
No, it’s a facility run by a private corporation. But they provide union wages.
What would you say is the general makeup of those workers in terms of demographics?
The care staff, housekeeping, dining staff, administration, are 99% women, and I would say maybe even 90% women of colour. There’re some young people who work as dining staff, the servers, but there are a lot of people who are older, even in their 50s, who are working here.
I’ve heard reports that casual, part time, or other non-union healthcare workers are being temporarily covered under collective agreement provisions for the crisis, but have you seen any evidence of this?
No, in my facility I haven’t, and usually we receive memos indicating changes from the government. Especially if it is something related to our region, we’ll get an email. We haven’t received any email notices or memos from our supervisors. I haven’t seen any direct evidence of this, although I have heard reports that the government is going to collectivise the agreements for all healthcare work, all long term care workers.
What’s it like in your workplace right now? How does everyone feel? Do you feel supported?
Right now, it’s a little bit calmer because it’s been about three months since the crisis hit BC. When, in the last couple of months it has been absolutely crazy, a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, lots of changes. Every single day we receive reports or information pamphlets from Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health, and there is a lot of information to wade through just to figure out what we should be doing for best practices, on top of the directives provided by our administration, so it’s been really stressful. In terms of what information we have, and also processing the rules and then having to stay on top of the changes in the policies every single day.
What would you say are the main concerns of you and your co-workers at work right now?
I was having a discussion with my coworkers today at the break time, and our biggest concern is absolutely the safety of ourselves in relation to supplies. So, we have one box left. We have 10 masks left in our facility. We do have some supply of N95 masks, but only administration knows where that is. I, as a nurse, have no idea where that is. Last week, my last shift was last Saturday, and at that time we had about a five-day supply left. And the fifth day would have been to today, Thursday, so we’re basically down to one little box of surgical masks. And we did receive an email from admin saying we’ve secured a supplier and they will be sending us supplies of face shield masks, surgical masks and gloves. But because we’re in between that time period of having one box and zero supply we’re concerned about putting our staff at risk in terms of safety.
Fraser Health has put in a directive that says that residents are not to be transferred. Usually when somebody has debilitating disabilities or they have a terrible wound that can’t be managed inside an assisted living facility, we transfer them to the hospital or to an extended care facility, but [at] this time it’s basically a death sentence to send anyone to the hospital or to extended care. So, we’ve been putting our safety and [our lives at] risk. I’ll give you an example: last week, there is a resident who is obese and in reality she should have a machine, a mechanical lift, to help lift her up, and we don’t have that in our facility. That’s just a thought. If you need a mechanical lift you’re out of there, you’re out of our facility. And because she didn’t have that, and we can’t transfer her, I have to use my personal body mechanics, with the assistance of another staff member to help lift her up. And I could get a strain, I could get a muscle strain, whatever, and so I’m putting my own safety at risk here.
I recently read a report from Ontario that some nurses there are being pressured at their facilities to reuse masks and things like that, because they don’t have enough. So, are you at that point yet where you’re going to need to reuse masks?
Right now we don’t want to reuse masks every day. First, the usual policy, before this crisis, was to use a mask, you go to one resident, then dispose of it. If you go to another resident then you use another mask. But that was completely thrown out the window. So what we have is, you have one mask at the start of your shift. You wear it all day long, and unless it’s wet, or it’s soiled in any way, you know, dust or something, then you throw it away. Or if it falls on the ground, obviously then you get another one. But now, the kind of policy is you wear one mask the whole shift and then you throw it away.
But I am at the point where I’m going to be working four 12-hour shifts for the next few days, and I don’t want to take away the masks from the other staff who are coming in as well, who are the casual staff. So I’m probably going to end up reusing my mask, although that’s not exactly best practice. At this point there’s really no other option. My mask is clean, but it’s not, so-called “best practice” to re-use the mask, but what can I do? I don’t want to take away the supply from other staff who are coming in tomorrow and next week, and it’s Easter long weekend too, so it’s even worse, because we have to order supplies. I don’t think we’re getting anything this weekend.
But to clarify, you’re supposed to be wearing a mask at all times when you’re dealing with the patients, right?
Oh, yes. The policy is that we, anytime we’re doing any kind of dress care, any close contact with the residents, we have to wear masks and goggles. Or if you wear glasses, you can wear a plastic face shield mask, the surgical mask with the plastic shield attached to the front of it. And you change your gloves, every time you go to a patient, and wash your hands, all that sort of stuff. But yeah, we’re basically wearing a mask all the time. Before it was only the care staff, but we changed the policy with the crisis to include the housekeeping, of course, dining staff, and the front desk.
You kind of mentioned this indirectly, but have there been new directives in terms of policies or procedures specifically to deal with the COVID-19 crisis?
Yeah, in regards to COVID-19, Fraser Health has asked us to monitor their temperatures. Of the residents I care for, every day I take their temperature and monitor their symptoms. The general policy right now is just be aware, make sure of social distancing, hand washing, all that stuff.
Are there any options for staff who need to, for example, stay home and take care of their kids, or if they get sick themselves? Do you have paid sick days?
We do have paid sick days. I was sick for two weeks last month, and I had already been sick the previous fiscal year. What ended up happening was I ran out of sick days, and my employer just told me to apply for EI, instead of paying me. So we have paid sick days, but they’re not enough, and we need more funding in order for the employer to give us more sick days.
How do you feel about the public celebrations of healthcare workers? The pots and pans and stuff every evening, that’s going on through the city?
At first I didn’t really understand the point of it, but when I’m walking out of work and I hear the residents in my facility banging on their pots and pans, it is kind of a sweet gesture, and I appreciate the solidarity from other residents of British Columbia. But I would much rather have supplies donated, or money in some way donated to health care facilities across BC instead. To me, it feels like the epitome of liberalism, where if somebody’s homeless on the street, and somebody takes a picture and puts it on facebook and they gave them some food or something, and then people click “like” on the photo on facebook, but it doesn’t do anything. It’s a nice gesture, like “Oh wow, look at that, 1.9 thousand “likes!”,” but how does that help the homeless person? It doesn’t. So for me, I appreciate the solidarity, but I would be even happier if they never did the cheering at 7pm and instead we got lots of extra funding and unlimited supplies.
Is there anything you’d like the provincial or federal governments to know about what you and your coworkers are going through?
They should know that we are not only putting ourselves at risk because we care about our fellow human beings, but also we are stressed out even when we go out of the workplace, when we’re at home. We’re constantly worried about getting sick because we have a duty to provide care. We don’t want to risk getting sick and leaving our coworkers short-staffed. Everybody I know is worried about every little sniffle or sneeze. They feel guilty if they call in sick. I wish they could understand how stressful it is in and out of the workplace.
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