For Immediate Release - February 7, 2020

Saskatchewan people take pride in our role as the pioneers of Medicare. But the public health care system we take for granted has reached a critical point.

Our population is growing and aging, with increasingly complex care needs. Our governments have not made the necessary investments to serve these growing needs. Federal health transfers have not kept pace, and provincial funding remains driven by the ongoing narrative of a tight fiscal budget. 

This growing imbalance between needs and funding has become critically apparent on the front lines, in the form of understaffing.

As a quick fix for budget pressures, health managers are routinely leaving positions vacant when staff quit or retire, or not replacing staff who are on leave. They also refuse to add baseline staff to units whose numbers and needs have increased. The result: crushing workloads that put the health and safety of patients, clients, residents and health care workers at risk.

Urgent action is needed to fix this crisis. And the opportunity and responsibility to act belongs to all of us.

SEIU-West represents health care providers in communities across Saskatchewan, including licensed practical nurses, continuing care assistants, medical imaging and lab technologists, trades and maintenance, dietary, administrative, and environmental services staff, among others. They are skilled and dedicated professionals working under high pressure to provide strong public services.

With increasing frequency and desperation, our members report that understaffing is harming their ability to provide safe care, as well as their own health and safety: patients and residents regularly left in bed because there aren’t enough staff to safely lift them; 15 residents not getting baths because there is only one staff person in the facility to bathe them; two staff on the night shift caring for 42 residents in a rural facility; and meals being cold because there aren’t any cooks.

The physical and mental stress of crushing workloads is harming our members’ concentration and sleep. They have high rates of back, shoulder, wrist and knee injuries, and high numbers of worker compensation claims. Working in health care has become a dangerous, unsafe occupation for too many.

This crisis did not happen overnight. It has been building for 20 years. While I would love to lay full blame on governments or health managers, the fact is that we are all responsible. We stopped paying attention; we stopped owning our responsibility as the custodians of the past and future of Medicare.

We need to invest in more frontline staff — of all stripes — and stop the focus upon cutting labour costs through understaffing. Managers will reply that it is difficult to recruit and retain skilled staff who provide stability and leadership in our health care system. Recruiting staff to such a chaotic and volatile health care system is indeed challenging. But it is possible. Creating a safe care environment through staffing increases will improve quality of care and health outcomes; it will also lend positively to these recruitment challenges.

A crucial part of the solution is to settle a collective agreement that fairly recognizes the contributions health care workers make to our system. Governments and health system leaders need to be bold enough to make the investment needed to reach this agreement with SEIU-West.

To achieve this, we need to write and call Premier Moe and the ministers of health and rural and remote health, and get our families and friends to do the same. We need to demand that our politicians recognize the seriousness of the understaffing crisis and its impact on quality of care and health outcomes.

We need to take back our responsibility to be stewards and watchdogs of the public services we expect and rely on. I challenge you to talk with the health care providers you encounter in health care facilities, at the grocery store, in your circle of friends. Ask them how understaffing affects their ability to get their job done … the job they do in service of you and your loved ones. Then add your voice to theirs.

Public health care belongs to all of us, and the time to act is now.


Barbara Cape is president of Service Employees International Union – West.


Originally published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix 2/07/2020.


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