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LONDON HEALTH SCIENCES CENTRE – Hospital hiring freeze, but no layoffs to full-time staff, says union

Posted: January 28, 2016

(January 28, 2016)

By: Kate Dubinski, The London Free Press

London’s largest hospital is replacing its cleaning staff with lower-paid contract workers, a shift one health advocacy group warns will lead to more patient infections and deaths.

The move, to be phased in over seven years, will save the London Health Sciences Centre $1.9 million a year, said Phil Hunt, the hospital’s director of business development and environmental and support services.

But the cost to patients could be much higher, said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, an advocacy group calling for more provincial hospital funding.

“When a private company takes over, there are cuts by limiting how much time cleaners have to do their jobs.

“In a hospital like the LHSC — which is already overfull, where the ER is at capacity, where patients are on stretchers in hallways — this will lead to higher death rates and higher infection rates,” Mehra said Thursday.

“Contracting out is a problem because of the job loss to the local economy and it’s something to worry about from a health-care point of view.”

LHSC has a more than $1-billion budget, but like many Ontario hospitals is trying to contain spending as provincial funding has failed to keep up with inflationary costs.

In London, that gap has left LHSC and St. Joseph’s Health Care trying to bridge $26 million between them this year on combined budgets of more than $1.5 billion.

The province, battling its own red ink, has moved to rein in hospital increases.

LHSC began meeting with its unionized cleaners this week.

The environmental service workers (ESW) were told their jobs will be phased out and replaced by workers from private contractor Sodexo, which will eventually be responsible for all cleaning services within the hospital.

Sodexo staff already clean some non-patient areas at LHSC.

The phase-in will begin April 1, when unionized cleaning staff from LHSC’s University Hospital will be moved to Victoria Hospital.

There will be no layoffs, but there will be a hiring freeze and any unionized cleaning staff, represented by Unifor Local 27, who retire or leave won’t be replaced.

“There is no impact with layoffs to our full-time staff. There will be decreased hours to part- time (workers) but we on a go-forward basis will be meeting with the hospital leadership to look at what this will look like so that the impact of hours lost will be at a minimum for our members,” said Ann Marie Tulett, Unifor Local 27’s vice president for health care workers.

The ESWs will keep cleaning the intensive care and critical care units, she said.

Some part-timers will be reassigned to other areas of the hospital.

The initial shift in April means 27 workers who used to be part-time will be made full-time, but part-timers and casual workers — the union represents 174 of them — will have reduced hours.

“It’s a cost-cutting measure. The hospital has to make hard decisions,” said Tulett. “Our members are not happy. We know there will be a reduction in hours.”

Some Sodexo staff are also unionized workers.

One part-time ESW, who did not want to be named, questioned how good a job can be done — especially in areas where infectious hospital bugs like MRSA and C difficile may be found — when “they’re going to replace our $21, $22-an-hour jobs with people who make $17 an hour.”

But Hunt, in an email, wrote that “LHSC has a longstanding partnership with Sodexo who are experts in providing quality environmental services within health care settings.”

Effective April 1, he noted, “LHSC will be augmenting our current cleaning outsourcing contract with Sodexo to provide all cleaning services to the hospital” over the next seven years.

Some part-time cleaners say they fear they won’t get enough hours to make a decent living and that many will effectively be forced to quit, then not be replaced.

Over-crowded hospitals can’t afford to cut cleaning, said Mehra.

“It puts the hospitals at risk and it puts the patients at risk,” she said. “This is a trend. A number of hospitals in Ontario are contracting out, because the provincial government has forced hospitals to make cuts because of the longest stretch of health care cuts.”

Ontario hospitals already have “alarming” readmission rates, Mehra said. “At some point these cuts have to stop.”

Around the world, hospitals that have contracted out cleaning staff have gone back to hiring their own, Mehra said.

“One study in England found that hospital infection rates went up, so they cancelled the privatization,” she said.

The move to Sodexo workers is just the latest in a long run of cuts to cleaners at the London Health Sciences Centre.

Last July, the hospital changed its policy and asked registered nurses to clean some rooms in between patients, a job once done by cleaners.

The year before, LHSC cut cleaning hours by 80,000 and nursing hours by 52,000, trimming $37.5 million from its budget.

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