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ONA, Norfolk mayor clash over health unit buyouts

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The Norfolk and Haldimand board of health and the Ontario Nurses’ Association continue to clash over staffing decisions affecting the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit.

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Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp — chair of the local board of health — has dismissed as “factually inaccurate” the ONA’s claim that the decision to reduce the health unit nursing complement by two positions has compromised the counties’ ability to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

In a news release, ONA president Vicki McKenna said the local board was “utterly foolish” to offer the nurses buyouts given the heavy toll the respiratory illness has taken locally.

This includes 13 deaths and dozens of COVID-19 infections at the Anson Place long-term care facility in Hagersville. These infections include residents and front-line workers alike, including nurses.

Under the heading “Ontario Nurses’ Association outraged,” McKenna says, “This board of health seems to be unaware of how serious this pandemic is and will become.

“I urge them to shift their focus away from the budget and direct it to ensuring they have adequate staff to help bring this pandemic under control.”

McKenna adds, “This health unit made the unfortunate decision to cut its nurse practitioner and a public health nurse when the Ford government’s public health cuts were announced last year.

“Now, it is losing two of its most experienced and knowledgeable public health nurses to early retirement at a time when their knowledge is invaluable. Mayor Kristal Chopp has announced she plans to replace these nurses with others who are willing to work for two months, as temporary staff. That is not the ideal way to staff a public health unit in a pandemic.”

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For her part, Chopp notes that the nurses in question remain on staff and at work. Both applied for the buyout, Chopp says, with one retiring at the end of April and the other in May.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chopp said April 8 in a statement on social media that the health unit asked these workers to reconsider their retirements once the extent of the health emergency became apparent.

Chopp said they refused, but may remain on staff as “casual” help.

“In light of the emergency, of course we offered to delay their retirement,” Chopp said. “But we can’t compel them to do so.

“Both individuals said no and took the retirement as offered. That said, they both indicated they may come back to work as ‘casuals.’

“If anyone understands retirements, pensions, and picking up work as a ‘casual,’ this could actually be a net benefit to the employee if they choose. In fact, all of the ‘volunteer’ positions for our nurses, personal service workers (and so on) that we may draw upon during this pandemic are paid positions.”

The nurses who accepted buyouts specialized in the area of sexual health. The health unit has delegated the delivery of sexual health services to physician-led family health teams throughout the two counties. Chopp expressed confidence these teams will offer services equal to if not better than the health unit.

The local board of health acted once the Ontario government announced funding cuts to public health. The buyouts were offered and accepted nearly two months before the COVID-19 pathogen presented itself in North America as a serious problem.

Chopp expressed outrage of her own that ONA would revisit the issue at a time of pandemic anxiety.

“We are in an unprecedented time,” the mayor said. “I am shocked that a union is using a pandemic to try to conveniently turn the facts to garner a ridiculous position.”

ONA represents more than 68,000 registered nurses, health-care professionals and 18,000 nursing student affiliates.

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