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Some Manitoba health-care staff feeling ‘overlooked’ with wages similar to restaurant, grocery workers: MGEU

A provincial union leader says it’s understandable some public-sector workers in Manitoba’s health care system would feel overlooked if they are paid as much as those cooking burgers at fast-food joints.

“You start at $17 an hour working as a custodian, while McDonald’s in Swan River is hiring at $17 an hour — so where are you going to go? These jobs aren’t competitive,” said Kyle Ross, who represents thousands of health-care workers in rural Manitoba whose positions have nowhere near the public profile as doctors or nurses. 

“If we want a strong health-care system, we have to be able to recruit people. It should be a coveted job.”

Ross, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, held a news conference Thursday to demonstrate the staffing crisis on support and technical jobs in the sector, ranging from health-care aides to home care attendants, mental health workers and custodial staff.

The union laid out its case in a 24-page self-created report, which focuses on the regions in which its 7,700 health-care members work: Prairie Mountain, Interlake-Eastern and Southern Health. MGEU called on the government to act, including with an “aggressive” recruitment and retention strategy. 

The report makes 10 recommendations for improvement. 

Ross said many of MGEU’s members feel their contributions aren’t valued to the extent of their other colleagues.

Valued part of health-care team

“I think sometimes the workers who work in dietary, who … do those jobs, clean the hospital are overlooked,” he said.

“It’s a challenging environment for them, but they are a very important member of the team.” 

The union president said boosting these workers’ wages would alleviate some of those issues.

As it stands, the starting wage for health-care aides and home care attendants is just over $20/hour, while it’s more than $17 for laundry aides and $18.32 for clerks, MGEU’s report said.

However, in some of the same communities, the report states those workers could make $21 an hour as a bank teller or grocery store cashier, or between $18 to $22 as a deli clerk.

“With this kind of wage competition, health care employment simply doesn’t hold the appeal that it once had,” the report said.

That same document reveals more than 30 per cent of health-care aide jobs in Prairie Mountain are unfilled. The vacancy rate exceeds 40 per cent in 16 of the health region’s facilities. 

“Insufficient staff means that each patient gets less time with a care provider,” the report said.

“The results are fewer baths, diapers going unchanged, wounds not being monitored or re-dressed as often, exercise routines getting rescheduled, meal times being rushed, and less time for conversation and companionship.”

To address these shortages, health authorities have increasingly turned to private agencies for help.

Prairie Mountain and Interlake-Eastern spent a combined $8.3 million on private health-care aides in 2021-22. Two years later, the health regions saw that amount triple to nearly $29.7 million. 

The hands of a person are on a walker. The left hand of another person is on that person's arm, supporting them.
Over a two-year span, the Prairie Mountain and Interlake-Eastern regional health authorities tripled the amount of money it spent on private agency health-care aides. (CGN089/Shutterstock)

Ross is urging the government to immediately begin phasing out the use of private agency staffing. He said the government and health-care employers could reallocate the savings into establishing a more attractive compensation package for public-sector workers.

He added turning more part-time positions into full-time roles would also act as an incentive.

Ross said health-care officials don’t have time to waste.

“I’ve visited many work locations in Prairie Mountain and when you go there, these workers are at the end of their career. They’re getting ready to retire and there’s no one to backfill.”

While Ross said he isn’t “under the delusion” the health-care system can be fixed in a few months, he urged the NDP government to move quickly so his members aren’t left behind any more.

MGEU is currently negotiating for improvements in wages and other areas as it seeks new contracts for its workers. The previous collective bargaining agreement expired in March. 

‘We are doing the work,’ health minister says of system fixes 

Manitoba Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara said the union’s recommendations for change largely fit with the NDP’s government’s priorities for improving provincial health care. 

“Many of the recommendations, if not all if them, align with the government’s priorities,” Asagwara said in a late-day press conference. The minister several times blamed the prior Progressive Conservative government for the poor condition of the health system and staffing anxieties. The NDP took power in October last year. 

“It’s going to take us time to move us in the right direction,” Asagwara said. “But we are doing the work.” 

Asagwara said the government is committed to being at the bargaining table to hammer out a fair deal for workers. 

“Our government has been able to achieve that with other unions,” Asagwara said.

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