Future uncertain for some Comox hospital employees

A significant number of St. Joseph's General Hospital employees this week heard they face uncertain future employment, as their jobs will not transfer over to the new hospital.

Island Health (IH) announced Monday housekeeping and plant maintenance services for the new hospitals in the Comox Valley and Campbell River — which are slated to open in 2017 — will be the responsibility of the as-yet-unannounced private sector partner.

St. Joseph's has 35 full-time equivalents (FTE) in housekeeping and 10.7 FTEs in plant maintenance. According to IH, the 35 FTEs in housekeeping translates to about 59 people, including full-time, part-time and casual employees.

Hospital Employees' Union local executive member Barb Biley says the official notice is devastating to these union employees.

"The workers are really angry," says Biley. "Sometimes private companies come in with their staff already in place, sometimes they hire locally; in every case they hire at much lower rates."

In a memo to staff, St. Joseph's president and CEO Jane Murphy notes there are three years to plan for the transition of acute services to the new Comox Valley hospital. When those services are transferred, residential services (The Views) are expected to remain at St. Joseph's, so some of these employees could end up staying on at the St. Joseph's site.

"As we work to clarify the future role for St. Joseph’s to include the continued provision of residential and hospice services, as well as other potential programs, we will also work to identify opportunities for our staff," Murphy continues.

IH has said housekeeping and maintenance services would likely move under the responsibility of the private partner since 2012 when it announced the North Island Hospitals Project would be completed via public-private partnership (PPP).

According to Island Health's VP of operations and support services Joe Murphy, the chosen consortium is expected to be announced this week, though it and IH would still need to negotiate an agreement.

Joe Murphy notes the private sector partner could choose to hire back those out of a job.

"That's certainly an option," he says. "Every company that I have had the occasion to become familiar with wants qualified, experienced housekeepers.

"There's actually going to be more housekeepers in the building than there are now (at St. Joseph's) because they're bigger buildings."

He wouldn't comment about the possibility of lower wages, saying no agreement has been reached with a private partner.

He also notes other options, such as positions elsewhere with IH, retraining and new jobs to fill at the new hospital that don't exist at the current hospital.

Biley says her concerns extend beyond jobs to worries about deterioration in patient care at the new hospitals.

"We have experience with PPP cleaning on Vancouver Island. In Nanaimo, after they brought in the private contractor, they had huge outbreaks of C. difficile," she says. "When you contract out this work to the private contractors … the public authority loses control, and the private contractor has control — and they work on the basis of profit, not on the basis of health care."

Joe acknowledges "some initial issues" when housekeeping services first started being contracted out. But, he says services are constantly monitored and he is confident standards will be met by a private partner.

"Across the board, our own staff and our contracted staff are all exceeding the provincial standard, and the provincial standards are very high," he says.


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