Yukon Employees’ Union says a lack of staff training and high turnover at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter is creating a dangerous situation for underpaid workers.
In a letter addressed to Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost on Nov. 30, the union described unsafe working conditions where staff are untrained, not provided sick days and left to deal with traumatic work events without adequate support.
The union said the shelter is lacking specific policies to keep frontline workers safe in the low-barrier shelter that has a mandate to support individuals struggling with mental health and substance use issues.
In particular, the letter notes that clients and guests of the shelter sometimes fall or pass out on the floor, but support workers have no way to safely lift them. The shelter has a no-lift policy, but workers are struggling to support clients without a lift device or help from EMTs or police.
“Staff frequently put themselves at risk, manually lifting people from the ground,” reads the letter.
The union is also asking for training in suicide prevention, non-violent crisis intervention, First Nations knowledge, first aid, mental health first aid, COVID-19 and basic health and safety training.
In the legislature, Frost thanked frontline workers and admitted that there are “certainly opportunities for us to make improvements.”
“With regard to the letter from the union, we would be happy to work with the union on some of these concerns that have been brought to our attention,” she said.
Frost remarked that the government has had a “short time and a short window in the pandemic to work with the services we have” but NDP leader Kate White responded by noting the government took control of the shelter in January 2019.
“The services offered by the shelter rely entirely on staff being able to deliver them. If the staff aren’t sure how to respond to a specific situation at the shelter, then what assurances are there that residents are receiving the help that they need?” she said.
In one example brought forward in the letter, support workers performed CPR on a guest after the individual died in a car in the parking lot on a midnight shift. When they sought trauma support staff were directed to phone the Employee and Family Assistance Program and were offered an unpaid hour with a government social worker.
“This is not meaningful support,” reads the letter.
The union also raised concerns about working conditions, noting that the shelter has had five different managers over a period of eight months.
The letter from the union acknowledges that the staffing situation at the shelter is changing, but it claims many frontline staff are still working without paid sick leave and benefits.
Frost said the policy “is evolving.”
“We are working with our staff at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter. We continue to train the staff. We are looking at all of our policies. It is evolving — the policies evolve,” she said. “We will do that in collaboration with our Public Service Commission staff as well as we look at stabilizing our staff there so that we can ensure an appropriate complement of supports for the clientele.”
White said the changes are positive, but the shelter shouldn’t have relied on auxiliary staff – or gone without training – for so long.
“The issues of the shelter have been ongoing for much longer than 2020,” she said. “So today, to be thanked by the minister for the work they’re doing is one thing, but what people really want is access to training and permanent full-time positions,” she said.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org