Hon. Christine Elliott
Ministry of Health
777 Bay Street, 5th Floor
Toronto, ON M7A 2J3
Re: Amendments to O.Reg. 74/20
Dear Minister Elliott,
I write as President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/Canadian Union of Public Employees (“OCHU/CUPE”), which represents 40,000 hospital and long-term care home workers across Ontario, including RPNs, clerical staff, porters and cleaners. These are some of the most underpaid and vulnerable workers on the front line battling against the COVID-19 pandemic.
I wish to express my grave concerns about the recent changes that were made to Ontario Regulation 74/20.
As you are aware, OCHU/CUPE has been concerned with this regulation since it was originally made in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. OCHU/CUPE has always understood the need for extraordinary measures to deal with this unprecedented health crisis, and has been an active, willing partner in this respect. Local unions worked together with hospitals to agree on redeployment plans that would both ensure continued health system resiliency and also respect the principle of collective bargaining. In our view, O.Reg. 74/20 represented an unwarranted and infringement on the collective bargaining rights of thousands of workers across Ontario.
My concerns with the recent changes to this regulation are of an entirely different kind: they risk placing workers’ lives at even greater risk than they currently are.
Under the amendments to O.Reg. 74/20, hospitals will now have the power to not only re-deploy staff against their wishes into long-term care, but also to retirement homes in Ontario. Presumably, this power would only be exercised in situations where those homes are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and are in need of extraordinary support.
OCHU/CUPE is deeply concerned that, when staff are re-deployed to such homes, they will not be provided with the Personal Protective Equipment they need in order to do their jobs safely.
As you are no doubt aware, PPE has been a continuing issue in the health sector in Ontario. For months, Directive 5, issued by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, did not provide adequate protections against aerosol transmission of COVID-19 for workers. It was only after OCHU/CUPE along with other health sector unions sued the Chief Medical Officer of Health that Directive 5 was amended to enhance access to N95 respirators.
Since then, both PHAC and PHO have fully recognized that COVID-19 is transmitted by aerosols, not merely droplets.
Notwithstanding these changes, OCHU’s members continue to face significant barriers to accessing PPE. Many employers, even in hospitals and long-term care homes refuse to comply with the requirements of Directive 5. Redeployment of OCHU workers makes the situation even worse because while the homes that they are deployed to are not the employer, they are still, for all practical purpose, the ones who are expected to provide PPE.
The problems presented in the retirement home sector are likely to be even worse.
To date, OCHU’s experience being deployed to retirement residences in cases where hospitals have assumed control over them have been nothing short of horrific.
For example, as I wrote to you and Minister Fullerton on November 30, 2020 with respect to Cedarcroft Place Retirement Residence in Stratford, OCHU members have experienced retirement homes withholding PPE illegally or situations where PPE is simply not present in the first place.
I am deeply concerned that these supply problems continue to persist across Ontario. Put simply, retirement home don’t appear to have the PPE to give workers, or when they do, refuse to provide it. While hospitals have also failed to comply with Directive 5, the situation in retirement homes is worse. The changes to Regulation 74/20 will force workers into dangerous environments against their will.
OCHU/CUPE was first notified that the government was “considering” making changes to O.Reg. 74/20 on Friday January 15th during an “engagement call” between health sector unions and officials from your Ministry. The changes were made the same day. I do not think that your Ministry took the time necessary to consider the real implications of these new powers.
The issues surrounding PPE are not the only problems with the changes to the Regulation. Other issues that the government has apparently not considered include:
- The problem of mobility. Your officials described the intent of this regulation to move to a “regional” approach to health sector human resources. However, this approach fails to recognize that OCHU/CUPE members are dramatically undercompensated for their work. Most do not own vehicles, and so are unable to travel to different settings. The government’s “regional” approach risks exacerbating this.
- Hospitals are already desperately understaffed, with increasing case counts, particularly within ICUs. Deployment hospital staff to retirement homes does nothing to solve the basic problem of an under resourced health care sector.
- Differential rates of pay for the same work done in hospitals vs. retirement homes will be devastating to the already dangerously low morale of workers in these settings. Imagine being a personal support worker in a retirement home, knowing that you are being paid less for the exact same work being performed by a PSW redeployed from a hospital. How would you feel about how much your employer – or the government – values your contribution to the fight against COVID-19.
The changes to Regulation 74/20 are dangerous and ill-advised, and should not have been made without actual consultation with the very workers whose lives will be impacted by these now powers.
Having made these changes, it is incumbent on you, as the Minister of Health, to answer some critical questions:
How will you guarantee that retirement homes will have adequate supplies of PPE, including N-95 respirators?
How will you guarantee that re-deployed workers will actually be provided with the PPE that they are legally entitled to under Directive 5?
How will the government support workers who now have to travel longer distances to go to work? How will they get there? Who will pay for their transport and accommodation? How will they be kept safe from infection while in transit?
How will your Ministry ensure that all healthcare settings, whether hospitals, long-term care, or retirement homes in outbreak, will be appropriately staffed and resourced?
How will the government maintain worker morale by providing equal pay to individuals doing the same job in the same setting, regardless of who their employer is?
These questions are not academic. They are critical to ensuring an effective response to COVID-19, and to protecting the health and wellbeing of both workers, patients and residents alike.
I await your prompt response.