Unions representing 70,000 healthcare workers are sounding the alarm about the staffing crisis plaguing hospitals across Ontario.

Last weekend, Headwaters Healthcare in Orangeville closed its emergency department temporarily to non-urgent patients because of depleted staffing levels. All services resumed just over 12 hours later.

“Our healthcare system is collapsing right before our eyes,” said Sharleen Stewart, SEIU Healthcare Union president.

“To see hospital emergency rooms, particularly in the rural centre, to be closed is something we should all be extremely concerned and alarmed about,” Stewart said.

“The problem is not beds in our hospitals. It’s not beds in our long-term care. It’s people. This is a human resource problem. These workers have been exploited for years,” the union president said.

Union leaders say they have been voicing their concerns over staffing levels for years.

“We warned the government, warned the OHA, warned the hospital administrators, that if we didn’t deal with the working conditions and the wages of these workers, we were going to be in a crisis,” Stewart said, noting the situation is worse than anticipated.

“Even I couldn’t have predicted it would be this bad.”

In January, Stewart said staffing issues forced the Orangeville hospital to redeploy kitchen staff to help the overburdened facility, a claim Headwaters’s president called “a false narrative at the expense of the hospital and our hard-working staff.”

During the pandemic, unvaccinated frontline workers were let go, but Stewart said those workers only made up one per cent of the workforce, so even if they were rehired “it’s not going to make a huge difference.”

Stewart said immediate solutions are needed, adding healthcare workers who took early retirement should be enticed to come back to help fill the gap.

She cited the wage cap implemented by the provincial government as a “definite” factor in the critical staffing crisis.

“It doesn’t pay for us to go to work anymore,” she said.

“Their wages were not adequate enough before the pandemic, now add on the workload, the risk, the violence that’s taking place,” she added. “Mental health is at a level that we’ve never experienced before, and then throw the economy on top of that.”

Several hospital officials have resorted to bringing on temporary agency nursing staff.

Still, Stewart said there are solutions to the problem, and agency workers are not it.

“Agencies is not the answer. Why would you pay double, triple wages for an agency staff who is not a consistent presence in your hospital? Start spreading that money across to recruit and retain full-time staff.”

In a statement to CTV News, the Ministry of Health wrote in part, “We are investing in a range of initiatives to attract, train and retain more nurses, and get them into the system sooner.”

The ministry added it would work with the healthcare sector to find a solution.

The staffing concern is being felt at hospitals across the region.

A spokesperson with Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket noted that “similar to other hospitals,” they are working to overcome “immense challenges” facing the system.

“While each unit is experiencing pressure, our emergency department is under particular strain and facing staffing challenges.”

“Across the organization, we have 100 vacancies, give or take. We’re constantly recruiting for those vacancies,” said Carmine Stumpo, Orillia Soldiers’ Hospital.

“The challenge is the recruitment process takes time for the specialized areas of our organization in the emergency department in critical care staff need time to be trained properly.”


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