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YEU, Yukon Hospital Corp. at odds over whether hospitals are understaffed

YEU says four nurses quit within 12 hours last week, a claim the YHC says is “inaccurate”
Whitehorse General Hospital in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. The Yukon Employees’ Union and Yukon Hospital Corporation are at odds over whether there’s a critical staffing shortage at the territory’s hospitals. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

The Yukon Employees’ Union (YEU) and Yukon Hospital Corporation are at odds over whether there’s a critical staffing shortage at the territory’s hospitals, with the union saying the situation is threatening workers’ safety and Yukoners’ health.

The corporation, however, claims the union is misrepresenting the situation and is accusing it of spreading “misinformation.”

The YEU, in a press release Oct. 19, announced that the Yukon’s hospitals were “bleeding out” due to severe understaffing, citing the resignation of four nurses at Whitehorse General Hospital within a 12-hour period the week prior as indicative of a larger underlying issue.

“While damning, these resignations are merely symptoms of a system on the verge of collapse,” the press release says. “Doctors, surgeons and Hospital staff represented both by YEU/PSAC and PIPSC have been raising the alarm for years, and the situation is now critical.

“Chronic understaffing has exposed hospital workers to a constellation of challenges including exposure to higher COVID risks with fewer resources and an ever-increasing workload.”

The union said that vacancies have also “skyrocketed,” with at least 42 vacant positions and more than 20 nursing positions unfilled.

In an interview, YEU president Steve Geick said that heavy workloads are an issue at all three of the Yukon’s hospitals, not just Whitehorse General, and that he’s hearing from members that they aren’t getting support from management.

In fact, he said, members are reporting that people who do complain about their workloads are being given remedial work to do on time management.

“And so it’s gotten to the point where I’m hearing from some staff that they just don’t fill out incident reports anymore because they’re not getting anywhere,” Geick said.

“They’re afraid of getting remedial work, they’re afraid of being called out by management, there’s just not support whatsoever. This is the worst I’ve seen morale, and perhaps staffing at the hospital, in like, well, I’ve been here 23 years.”

The YEU is also taking issue with what it says is the hospital corporation’s “unhealthy dependence” on agency nurses, who are flown in from Outside to help fill staffing needs.

“I think especially during COVID, they’re coming from all across Canada so I mean they could be coming from a hotspot,” Geick said. “They’re not required to self-isolate … It puts not only our members at risk but more importantly, the patients and clients in the hospital.”

A spokesperson for the Yukon Hospital Corporation, however, said that the YEU has it wrong.

“There is no doubt that we experience recruitment challenges — but we are not alone,” Chris Huestis wrote in an email Oct. 19.

“… The numbers that YEU states only provide part of the story and don’t reflect the complexities of recruiting within the hospital or the broader healthcare sector. It also does not reflect any understanding of staffing during a pandemic.”

The corporation, according to Huestis, has a “slightly higher than normal number” of job postings at the moment “due primarily to the fact that we’ve added new positions in response to growing demand for hospital services and COVID response.” While nursing at Whitehorse General currently has a roughly 8.5 per cent vacancy rate, the hospital was also able to hire 15 new employees within nursing last month, he wrote, and positions are typically filled in 30 to 40 days.

“To be clear, vacancy does not mean shifts go unfilled,” Huestis wrote.

He also said that the union’s claim that four nurses resigned within 12 hours was “inaccurate.” When asked about whether four nurses had quit within any period last week, Huestis said that the corporation “can’t speak to specific HR situations.”

In its own press release issued Oct. 20, the corporation claimed the YEU “has not engaged us on an ongoing basis to work collaboratively on any of the issues they raised in their statement.”

“YEU’s timing, and the public manner in which they chose to proceed, seems odd and highly cynical given we are about to resume collective bargaining in a couple days,” the press release continues.

“… Our hospitals, people and communities deserve better than false statements and misinformation that undermines trust and the good work that our entire team does.”

Geick said the union was going public with its concerns because going through “normal channels” wasn’t producing any meaningful change.

In a follow-up email, he said that he knew that four nurses had resigned from Whitehorse General on Oct. 13, and that the information about that having happened within a 12-hour period came from the executive of the local.

“I find it amusing that (the corporation’s) concern is that it wasn’t in a 12 hour period,” he wrote.

Geick wrote that he also found it “amusing” that the corporation was tying vacancies to its COVID response.

“(COVID) may have exacerbated the issue but the staff that is still there has been screaming for more bodies for at least the last six years,” he said.

Contact Jackie Hong at