Comment: Treat all health-care workers like the heroes they are

While the 7 p.m. banging of pots and cheers of gratitude have faded, there remains a new appreciation for the health-care team on the front lines of this pandemic — and for the risks they face each and every day to keep us safe.

But thousands of those critical health-care workers — the ones who keep our hospitals and extended care homes clean and safe, and prepare and deliver meals to patients — aren’t treated like they’re part of that team.

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More than 4,000 hospital housekeeping and dietary staff across the Lower Mainland, Sunshine Coast and Fraser Valley — and from many parts of Vancouver Island, including the capital region and Nanaimo — have been employed for nearly 20 years by multinational corporations headquartered in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Spain.

That is the direct result of privatization and contracting out in health care that occurred after the former B.C. Liberal government legislated away key provisions in health-care collective agreements in 2002.

That law cleared the way for the mass firing of thousands of workers who lost decent family-supporting jobs with pensions and decent benefits. Those ­workers were invited by multinationals to reapply for their jobs at half the wages.

They’ve been trying to catch up ever since.

And like the pandemic itself, the economic impacts of privatization have been shouldered by women — more than four out five of those affected — and by workers of colour.

It is a sad irony that these “health-care heroes” are still earning less today than they did during the SARS epidemic of 2003.

Lerma, a hospital housekeeper, earns $17.10 an hour. Before her job was privatized 18 years ago, she earned $18 — now she can’t support her family with one job and works two. As a single mom, it’s been hard to make ends meet.

Catalina, a food-service worker at a large urban hospital, remembers going from earning $18.10 an hour with benefits and a pension to $10.15 with no benefits.

The dramatic overnight change threw her life into chaos. Now she makes $17.15 an hour and has missed out on being able to save for retirement.

Low pay, heavy workloads and high staff turnover are taking a toll.

So has the pandemic. The B.C. Centre for Disease Control reports that COVID-19 infection numbers for housekeeping and dietary staff exceed those for physicians, dentists, respiratory therapists and all other allied health occupations with the exception of nurses and care aides.

Hospital housekeeping and dietary staff are critical to the delivery of health care and they have faced enormous risks ­during this pandemic.

Now it’s time to reunite these workers with the rest of the health-care team that they work beside every day.

The political will is there.

In 2018, all parties in our legislature voted to repeal the 2002 law that set us on the path to privatization. And in last year’s provincial election, the B.C. NDP committed to bringing contracted hospital housekeeping and dietary workers back under the control of B.C.’s public health authorities.

And Premier John Horgan has acknowledged the ­barriers to full participation in the ­workforce that face racialized and marginalized people, and has mandated his cabinet to review all policy and budget decisions through an ­intersectional gender lens.

The roadmap is there, too.

Our union and health ­employers have agreed on a framework that will ensure a smooth transition of these ­workers from their multinational employers to the health authorities where they belong.

And last year, 150 housekeeping staff at North Island Hospital sites in Comox and Campbell River employed by a multinational were brought back under direct health authority control.

We can act now to reverse nearly 20 years of ­privatization that have pushed women and workers of colour to the side, fragmented our health-care team, and provided huge profits to multinational ­corporations.

We need to move forward with a pandemic recovery that includes stronger public health services and good jobs.

Reuniting our health-care team is the right thing to do — for patients, for workers, for safer hospitals and for better care.

Hospital dietary and cleaning staff have waited long enough for the recognition and respect they deserve. Let’s make sure that the failed privatization ­policies of the past do not ­survive this pandemic.

Mike Old is the secretary-business manager (interim) of the Hospital Employees’ Union. HEU is the largest health-care union in British Columbia, representing more than 50,000 health care workers in a broad range of occupations and settings.

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