The Yukon Employees Union is calling on the government to review how group homes are staffed in the territory.
President Steve Geick says staff are telling him the frequency of them working alone in the facilities has, “in their words, dramatically increased in the last three months.
“Yes, they are being put in unsafe situations. The staff is as well as the children that are in care,” he said.
The Yukon’s seven group homes for youth are staffed by a combination of permanent staff and auxiliary on-call workers.
Using the number of hours given to on-call workers for 27 days in April, the YEU is projecting that by the end of the quarter there will be about 166 fewer shifts, or about 2,000 fewer hours, compared to last year, Geick said.
On-call hours fluctuate for group home workers. Data from 2015-16 list 12,000 hours in the first quarter, 14,000 in the second, and between 11,000 and 12,000 in the next two.
Geick acknowledged that extrapolating forward from only one month is not ideal, but said he’s working with the only information he’s got.
The Department of Health and Social Services meanwhile admits there is close to a 2,500-hour difference between April 2015 and April 2016.
But department spokesperson Pat Living says April 2015 should not be used as an indicator for how a normal year is run. Multiple staff went on lengthy training so more auxiliary on-call (AOC) staff had to be called in, she said in an email.
“With this training complete, we obviously don`t need as many AOC hours.”
As for how often staff have to work alone in a group home, that is less clear.
Living denies group homes are understaffed.
Staffing ratios are a minimum of one staff for every four youth. That’s the industry standard, she said.
When a shift is fully staffed Yukon is above that standard. There are two workers scheduled in each house for each 12-hour shift.
That averages out to one staff for every 2.5 youth, according to Living. During the days, there are also a supervisor and a caseworker.
Since Yukon group homes are small, with between three and six beds, staff can sometimes work alone and still meet the 1:4 ratio.
Living couldn’t say how often that happens.
“This is situational and usually dependent on balancing human resources. Call-ins, current staffing structure (four on, five off), high vacation leave in summer months, etc. are all factors that make it difficult to ensure staff do not work alone,” the email said.
“That said, it is not often that staff have to work alone.”
The union met with some group home staff in May. Geick said he heard from workers who feel under-supported and at risk and are being asked to care for vulnerable, sometimes violent, youth alone.
Geick said he’s heard from one person who was alone in a house with two youth who are known to sometimes be violent.
“One of the boys started to become violent. The alone individual in that house used their training and tried to restrain that kid. My understanding is that they were on the ground, the staff member trying to restrain the kid,” he said.
“The staff member had to ask the other child in the house to go and get the phone and dial a number, I don’t know who they were trying to phone, to ask for help.”
The second child had to hold the phone to the staff member’s ear so he could ask for help, he said.
Geick doesn’t know if the worker reported what happened to his supervisor or the territory’s occupational health and safety officials.
In 2014 safety officials stepped in after there were 21 reported injuries in the facilities in the 18 months between July 2012 and January 2014.
An independent safety study found staffing guidelines meet and sometimes exceed similar facilities elsewhere. “However, when auxiliaries are utilized, or staff work short, then staffing levels/competencies are not adequate for the type and level of clients present.”
The Yukon government was ordered to create a health and safety program – something that’s required by the Yukon’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Living said the government has done that, and has revamped other policies and training. It has developed a 24-hour on-call system where supervisors rotate weekly on call to provide after-hours support to staff.
Supervisors use a new “risk assessment tool” to decide if someone can work alone.
A new report from 2015 said the department has made “substantial progress in the past 18 months towards the implementation of its HSMS (Health and Safety Management System),” according to Living.
Geick said the 1:4 ratio, even if it is standard, is too risky when it means the possibility of working alone.
“To my knowledge anyhow, it’s based on everything being fine, nobody becoming violent.”
It may well be that there are more workers who could be called on if the department chose to. In April 2016, 26 on-call workers got shifts. Forty-eight on-call workers got at least one shift last fiscal year.
The situation doesn’t appear to have translated into more calls to occupational health and safety.
According to spokesperson Andrew Robulack, investigators are looking into one serious injury claim that happened last month.
It’s the first serious report they’ve received from a youth facility in two years, which suggests that conditions have improved since 2014, he said.
Robulack couldn’t provide any details of the current investigation.
Living also claims internal data show incident reports have dropped almost 20 per cent in the past year.
Geick said workers don’t always come forward with complaints. They either don’t think what happened to them is serious enough or they’re afraid to have their hours cut.
“Real, false or perceived, it (the fear) exists.”
The Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada says health and social service workers are at the greatest risk of injury in Canada. The Yukon board says that’s likely true in the territory as well, but the sample size here is too small to be accurate.
Contact Ashley Joannou at