Saskatchewan lab worker shortages not improving as COVID-19 tests ramp up: union

Close to two weeks after the Saskatchewan Health Authority announced its plans to hire dozens of new workers to meet the demand of COVID-19 testing, the president of the union representing laboratory workers in the province says staffing shortages still aren’t being addressed.

“Before the pandemic we had some critical understaffing issues all across the province,” said SEIU-West president Barbara Cape.

“Now that the pandemic is in full swing, the crisis that we were predicting, unfortunately, has come to fruition.”

The SHA is currently in the process of recruiting 76 new workers, which includes laboratory technologists, laboratory scientists, laboratory assistants and data entry clerks, to help conduct its goal of 4,000 COVID-19 tests a day.

Read more: Over 800 COVID-19 tests conducted in Saskatchewan schools last week: SHA

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So far, 27 workers have been hired and the health authority is currently training 12 of them.

The majority of those staff are working in Regina’s Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory and the Royal University Hospital Microbiology Laboratory in Saskatoon, the SHA said.

“While these additions to our team will not immediately address the pressures, as training and onboarding to the team takes time, they will help create more sustainability for the long term,” the SHA said in statement to Global News.

Read more: Inside the Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory conducting coronavirus tests in Saskatchewan

According to Cape, many of these new hires are actually internal hires.

“Folks who move into these new positions are leaving behind a vacant position that still creates a capacity question,” Cape said.

The SHA said it recognizes the difficulty in recruiting laboratory technologists and assistants during the pandemic.

“Our goal is to recruit to the specific job classification needed to perform the tasks required,” the health authority said.

However, Cape said there are instances throughout the province where lab techs are being used for administrative duties or data entry clerks.

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“Let’s be smarter about how we’re utilizing [lab technologists] because that starts to build capacity,” Cape said.

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Due to the staffing and resource shortages, Cape doesn’t think it’s possible to process 4,000 tests a day.

“If we’re talking about 4,000 COVID tests you have to put that on top of say 5,000 tests that are currently being done for other needs,” Cape said.

“For instance, maternal testing and diabetes testing. We’re coming up into the flu season so that’s going to rise sharply.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the health authority admits lab workers have been clocking “a significant amount of overtime.”

The SHA says it “recognizes the need to ensure our staff are able to work safety and effectively, and also take time off away from work.”

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According to Cape, some staff are working 16-hour days and throughout their weekends to meet demand. Her biggest concern is worker burnout.

One lab worker told her that she’s having nightmares about COVID testing.

“When it’s manifesting itself in that way, I am concerned for the mental, physical and emotional health of the folks who are responsible for this work,” Cape said.

According to Cape, the SHA would have to hire 150 new employees to see improvement.

She also wants to see a focus on worker retention. She said more and more lab employees are choosing to retire or find work out of province.

“There is no stable collective agreement and the compensation that’s being offered is well below the market value that we’re seeing in Alberta and that’s where folks are choosing to move,” Cape said.

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