Public health nurses protest hours of work, non-nurses handling health calls

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The Haldimand Norfolk Health Unit nurses and staff staged a protest on Nov. 13 over their lunch hour to bring awareness to the fact that they have been working short-staffed throughout the pandemic.

At 12 p.m. on the dot, the staff began leaving the building on Gilbertson Drive in Simcoe as a vehicle was blasting Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

One person standing along Queensway East took the name of that song to heart. Frances Deboer, a public health nurse of 32 years, recently retired as a result of the conditions of working through the pandemic, she said.

“We have a contract and they’ve not been following any of it, they disregarded it ever since COVID started,” said Deboer. “I’m from the Haldimand end; they closed both offices and moved us all up here.”

Deboer said nurses have been working seven days straight without weekends, and there has been no overtime or pandemic pay.

“They’re overworking the nurses that they have and they’re hiring people that aren’t nurses to fill the positions that nurses should be doing,” she said.

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A representative from the health unit said some nurses have had to work seven days straight, but with shortened hours, and are receiving overtime pay for the extra hours worked.

Melanie Holjak, the ONA bargaining unit president and a public health nurse at HNHU, said the calls to the health unit regarding COVID-19 questions should be handled by nurses but they have been handed off to over county staff without health backgrounds.

“When you get a telephone call from the health unit asking about your fever, your shortness of breath, diarrhea, vomiting, it should be a nurse asking those questions,” she said.

“A wellness check is a short phone call to an individual used to gauge their health and wellness and identify any issues of concern, and closely follows a script developed by public health staff,” said the representative from the health unit. “A nurse is available to these staff at all times to assist with questions or concerns that may arise during a call, or to perform follow-up assessment of individuals, as needed.”

Holjak also added they have been working short staffed for all of 2020 after three positions were cut due to budgeting. The health unit currently has between 30-35 nurses, with eight positions vacant, she said.

“The RNs say the community is suffering the impact – including the fact that non-RNs are conducting COVID-19 symptom assessments and monitoring, as well as the infectious disease work that should be performed by these registered nurses,” said a media release from the Ontario Nurses’ Association.

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“Haldimand Norfolk County has seen COVID-19 outbreaks in local long-term care homes, local farms and in the community. There are now eight RN vacancies at this health unit, and the community is being short-changed public health services as a result,” continued the release.

The Norfolk County website lists three job postings for public health nurses.

Matt Terry, director of communications for Norfolk County, said by email that some of the current vacancies were only recently approved by the board of health, with three of them being school health nurses.

“We’d like to maximize that funding by hiring a mix of RNs and RPNs, but ONA does not support the hiring of RPNs, which has unfortunately delayed the recruitment process,” said Terry.

Holjak added the group knows of many RNs that have applied for positions at the health unit and are still waiting to hear back.

“Where are these nurses? Why haven’t they been hired?”

The call to action by the group of nurses is for all of the vacant RN positions to be filled immediately.

“One of the solutions that we have proposed to the management team at the health unit is to actively engage the frontline workers in meetings and discussions that they are having that impact the work that we are providing,” said Holjak. “When they are having these discussions about workload, about scheduling, about reassignments, there should be some frontline representation.”

ONA is the union representing more than 68,000 registered nurses and health-care professionals, as well as more than 18,000 nursing student affiliates, providing care in hospitals, long-term care facilities, public health, the community, clinics and industry.

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