Change Agents
/ Author: Alison Brown 2122 Rate this article:
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Change Agents

In an industry where workers have little control, CLAC members at Roberta Place took some back

No one understands dealing with constant change better than a healthcare worker. Like any industry, technological advancement and continuously shifting government regulations can create an unstable work environment. Everyone is expected to do more with less—less time, less money, less assistance.

With chronic understaffing and increasingly high-needs residents, employees at a long term care home can feel run off their feet and powerless. If those employees are unionized, making the switch to another union is just another change in an already unpredictable workplace. It’s easier to be unsatisfied with the familiar union than go through the process of switching unions and adding another big change to the mix.

But a group of dedicated stewards at Roberta Place did just that. They picked up the phone and contacted CLAC.

Roberta Place is a 137-bed home in Barrie, Ontario, that employs approximately 115 staff—many of whom were displeased with the lack of service from their previous union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Although reaching out to CLAC was a risk, it was one they were willing to take.

“We wanted the union of our choice,” says Joanne Wyldes, a personal support worker (PSW) at Roberta Place.

Joanne was formerly a steward for SEIU, but now serves as a steward for Health Care and Service Workers Union, Local 304.

“CLAC is our union,” she says. “It’s not a union that was just given to us. We chose it. We were an active participant in choosing our own union.”

Claudia Abreu, another steward and PSW at Roberta Place, agrees. “We made the change. We’re the ones who approached CLAC. We collected the cards. We showed up to vote. CLAC is our baby.”

The vote to change unions was held in November 2014. Although 77 percent of employees voted in favour of the change, uncertainties and anxieties about switching to a brand new union lingered.

“There was a period of time where we were really nervous about the changeover, because we heard rumours about the things that would happen to us when we switched,” says Lynn Marnie, a retired registered practical nurse (RPN) and bargaining committee member. “But the change was seamless.”

Ruth Ann Ferguson, CLAC representative, was first approached by Roberta Place employees a year-and-a-half before the vote could take place, but the opportunity wasn’t there—they had to wait until the collective agreement reached open season.

“The campaign to switch unions was driven internally by the membership,” says Ruth Ann. “When staff first approached us, it was never about the financial aspect of the collective agreement. It was a simple matter of service and being involved in the process.”

Bargaining proved to be extremely productive, as the employees voted unanimously in favour of their first collective agreement with CLAC.

“Being part of the process and having a voice was a new experience,” says Lynn. “We were all able to walk away with the relationship intact.”

“There’s a different air in the building at Roberta Place now,” says Andrea Damas, a PSW and steward. “Everyone seems happier.”

And happiness is crucial, especially in a high stress job with multiple competing demands. For many PSWs working day shifts, their workday begins at six a.m. Four PSWs usually work a thirty-two-resident floor, so each PSW is responsible for caring for eight people. This is not always the case, as understaffing is a chronic problem, especially in the summer when people go on vacation.

“One of the biggest challenges we face in our job is working short and having all kinds of things coming up, running behind, and each resident wanting this or that at the same time,” says Joanne. “It’s hard. You’re just one person. You just can’t divide yourself up in eight sections.”

“The worst is when you’re short for three or four days in a row,” says Andrea. “That’s when it really starts to take a toll on you, and everyone gets moody and stressed, and the residents suffer.”

“We definitely need higher levels of staff so that the residents don’t feel like they’re a number,” says Lynn. “We don’t want to give them care that’s rushed.”

Not only do the employees have to ensure the residents are receiving the best care possible, they have to be mindful of the residents’ families, who are often critical.

“Sometimes, you get that family who can’t be pleased no matter what you do and how hard you’re working for their parent or grandparent,” says Lynn. “You just have to do your best with the time you’re given. But it’s stressful.”

If the employees could change just one thing about their job, more time providing care for the residents would be number one.

“If we had ten minutes to spend with them as opposed to five, that would make a huge difference,” says Joanne. “We become their family, particularly the PSWs because we work so closely with them.”

“Some residents don’t get visits from their families and they’re lonely,” says Claudia. “They just want to talk to you and tell you things that are important to them, and it’s hard when we’re so busy and we have to cut them off and keep working. It doesn’t make me feel good, and I know they’re frustrated with it.”

Despite the challenges, the employees do their best to make sure their residents feel safe, secure, and supported. And they reached out to a union that would make them feel the same.

“The biggest change we’ve noticed since CLAC took over is that you’re on the other end of the phone,” says Lynn. “We appreciate the wide-open communication. I can always count on hearing back from somebody very, very shortly.”

That change, which drove the campaign to choose CLAC, is one that has helped the employees achieve a better work-life balance.

“There is less frustration in the workplace now because we can always reach our union if we have a problem, and the representatives tell us what they can do to help us,” says Claudia. “So then I can come home and leave that problem behind me, and know that tomorrow I’m going to go into work and things are going to get better.”

“I feel safe retiring now,” says Lynn. “I know I’m leaving my co-workers in good hands.”



I’M GOING TO NEED A MINUTE

Shortly after Roberta Place joined CLAC, I was getting on the highway back to Barrie for a meeting when my cellphone rang, so I used my headset to answer the call. It was a member from Roberta Place on the other line. She asked, “Is this Ruth Ann? . . . From CLAC? . . . From the union?” When I answered yes to all of her questions, she paused and said, “I’m going to need a minute. I’ve never been able to reach a union person before!”

PARLEZ-VOUS FRANCAIS?

There was a resident who passed away a few years ago. She was 106 when she passed and we all loved her. She was such a smart lady and we’d always ask her, “What year were you born?” and she’d say, “1906.” One day, I was caring for her and talking to her, and I speak with a thick Brazilian accent. She turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, dear. I don’t speak French!” But I was speaking English to her!

SOME LIKE IT HOT

In the summertime, the heat inside a long term care home can become unbearable. According to the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, temperatures in homes may not dip below 23O C. But there is no regulation for how high the temperature can go.

Many newer homes have air conditioned hallways or common rooms. But the residents’ rooms and shower rooms—where healthcare workers provide hands-on care—tend not to be air conditioned.

“Giving showers in the heat of summer is really tough,” says Andrea Damas. “Baths aren’t so bad because you can run the water and open the door and let the steam out, but showers are killer.”

“In some of the residents’ rooms, there’s no air circulation,” says Claudia Abreu. “But even on the hottest days, some of the residents will still ask you to get them a sweater!” 

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