Hospital transfer workers are seen outside the Lynn Valley Centre care home in North Vancouver, B.C. on April 8, 2020. Seniors who complained of fatigue, confusion or just didn’t seem like themselves were tested for COVID-19, allowing the Vancouver Coastal Health authority to get in front of the virus, a health official says. Medical health officer Dr. Michael Schwandt said they began testing broadly and often, and not just those who had classic symptoms of the virus. It was a decision Schwandt said helped pinpoint developing cases before they could spread in care homes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Unionization at deadly care home signals change, says expert

Care aides at the Lynn Valley Care Centre are looking to unionize in the wake of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak

  • Jun. 6, 2020 10:00 a.m.

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee

Care aides at the Lynn Valley Care Centre are looking to unionize in the wake of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the North Vancouver facility, signalling workers’ appetites for better working conditions and compensation in the beleaguered sector.

The home suffered Canada’s first COVID-related fatality in March, with 20 residents eventually dying of the disease and more than 50 residents and two dozen staff infected before the outbreak was declared over in May.

The Hospital Employees’ Union, which represents more than 15,000 care aides, submitted an application to represent workers at the facility to the Labour Relations Board early this week.

A majority of staff had signed union cards, the HEU said in a news release, and a mail-in vote among 120 staff members will be administered by the board this week.

“In the face of this unfolding tragedy, and despite the risks they faced, these workers showed courage, and a deep commitment to the care of their elderly residents at Lynn Valley,” HEU secretary-business manager Jennifer Whiteside said in the release.

“Now they are uniting together with HEU to advocate for safer working and caring conditions, and fair treatment from their employer.”

The HEU represents staff at nine other facilities in B.C. operated by Pro Vita, the contractor that provides staff to privately-owned Lynn Valley. It represented workers at Lynn Valley until 2007.

BC Liberal government changes in 2003 ending protection for employees when care home owners changed contractors led to contract-flipping and decreased unionization in the sector.

In 2001, the BC Liberal government introduced legislation allowing a number of long-term care operators to opt out of the existing master collective agreement.

The result today is contract “fragmentation,” said Whiteside, and disparate provisions across more than 80 separate agreements negotiated by HEU since 2001.

The move towards unionization comes on the heels of a pandemic that has revealed serious problems in the province’s long-term care system and left staff and residents vulnerable to the virus.

Bethany Hastie, a labour expert and assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia, said the pandemic could bring a new wave of union organizing.

“It’s really shone a light on the kinds of essential work that we maybe didn’t think of as essential,” Hastie said.

“In that particular industry, that privatization seemed to be followed by a depression in wages and in benefits… and these people are taking care of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

The vast majority of B.C.’s 164 virus-related deaths have been residents of long-term care, as have around 80 per cent of deaths across Canada.

These deaths include one care aide in his 40s, who worked in two facilities to support his family and died after contracting the virus at work.

Early in the pandemic, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry took over staffing at long-term care facilities across the province, offering some workers wage boosts and ensuring that each staff member only worked at one facility to limit potential transmission.

Many care aides had worked across facilities to get enough hours to make ends meet, and about two-thirds of aides in private facilities don’t make as much as those covered by the Provincial Master Agreement.

Changes to the provincial labour code in 2019 now prohibit contract-flipping and the province has promised a comprehensive review and reform of the sector after the pandemic subsides.

Hastie says these changes mean Lynn Valley could be the beginning of a wave of unionization among B.C. care workers.

The memory of the benefits of unionization is strong among staff, Hastie said, as is knowledge of how to organize.

“This is perhaps an important moment for workers to seek to make gains to allow them to have decent working conditions and wages because of unionization,” she said. “We’re seeing a revitalization in labour organizing.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

EDITORIAL: Managing wildfires

Wildfires have the potential to cause significant damage within our province

‘It’s just my job’: Off-duty Peachland paramedic saves choking girl downtown Penticton

Family vacationing in Penticton assisted by off-duty paramedic, who helps save 13-year-old

Opening night lineup for online Roots & Blues festival released

The first night of the festival on Aug. 14 will be stacked with favourites from previous years

Evacuation alert for homes near Dry Lake fire rescinded

Fire status changed to Under Control, crews remain on site patrolling and extinguishing hot spots

Morning Start: The human body contains trace amounts of gold

Your morning start for Friday, August 7, 2020

53 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths cap off week of high infection rates in B.C.

Roughly 1,500 people are self-isolating because they either have COVID-19 or have been exposed to it

VIDEO: Internet famous Yukon-based bhangra dancer explores Vancouver Island

Gurdeep Pandher spreads joy through dance, forms cross-cultural connections amid pandemic

Tech mogul growing North Okanagan’s wine industry

The founder of online dating site Plenty of Fish is developing 900 acres in Vernon

Fentanyl-laced powder being sold as cocaine in Kamloops

Interior Health has released a warning about very strong fentanyl in Kamloops

Unofficial holidays: the weird and wonderful things people celebrate around the world

On any given day of the year, there are several strange, silly or serious holidays to observe

North Okanagan ranch needs support to stay afloat

Founded in 1867, a fundraiser has been launched for the Historic O’Keefe Ranch

Video: Enraged man terrifies staff and customers at Shuswap restaurant

Video on Facebook shows the man hurling profanity at workers during the dinner rush on Aug. 7.

Pup stolen from Vernon temporary shelter reunited with owner

Nicola Sanders says her son’s puppy was ‘overjoyed’ to see her owner again

Moving on: Tanev scores 11 seconds into OT as Canucks oust Wild

Vancouver beats Minnesota 5-4 to move into first round of NHL playoffs

Most Read