Hospital support staff hold rally opposing cuts

This story originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on 07/18/2017.

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Dozens of Winnipeg hospital workers drew attention Tuesday to a growing sense of uncertainty and confusion over provincial health-care cuts.

The noon-hour demonstration in front of Grace Hospital involved at least three separate unions from two facilities: Grace and the Middlechurch personal care home.

"We're telling Premier Pallister to stop these cuts. What we see is a log of poorly thought-out and reckless cuts to front-line services that are going to affect patients," said Jeff Traeger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers local 832.
For days, the province and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority have been quelling fears and uncertainty brought on by a massive reorganization of hospital services by the Manitoba government under Premier Brian Pallister.

Doctors were worried their hours would be chopped following notices sent to employees of community hospitals such as Grace and Seven Oaks. It took the province's health minister to dampen down the roar Monday, assuring doctors their hours won't be cut, but warning where they work could change as facilities are revamped.

Media reports have cited similar concerns from nurses.

On Tuesday, support workers were in the spotlight.

The atmosphere was noisy and probably looked jovial to passing motorists who slowed to pass the clutch of workers spanning both sides of Sturgeon Road. The protesters waved and wore colourful makeshift sandwich boards bearing scribbled slogans, or carried picket signs written up in hot pink and neon blue.

Just about everyone on the picket line could recite a laundry list of services due to be closed, outsourced or moved, but nobody could say for sure when it was all going to happen. The belief was things are likely to change in October or November, based on internal WRHA notices to hospital staff and union representatives.

At Grace, the cafeteria is slated to close, oncology services and mental-health services are moving, and a transitional-care unit for hospital patients waiting for personal-care beds will be shuttered. At Middlechurch, dietary services, including the facility's kitchen, are slated to close.

"It's mass confusion and uncertainty," said Debbie Boissonneault, who heads up the bargaining table for the 500 support staff in CUPE local 1599.

The province recently announced hospital-based physiotherapy services will be shut down and patients will have to pay for those services elsewhere, privately or through insurance.

"It's ugly and it's going to get worse," said Trevor Yuriy of Operating Engineers local 987. "New positions are being posted and they're all temps, part time and casual. It's precarious."

Some hospital employees are taking private-sector jobs that pay better and are more stable, Yuriy said, adding four operating engineers out of a staff of 20 at Grace handed in their notices in recent weeks.

"Twenty is not a big staff, and four is a lot of people. There's a lot of uncertainty. People are looking to exit," he said.

Under the provincial government's restructuring plan, Concordia Hospital's emergency department will close, Misericordia Health Centre's urgent care centre will be converted into a facility specializing in intravenous services, and Victoria General Hospital and Seven Oaks General Hospital will have their ERs turned into urgent care centres.