'Workers are tired': Sask. public sector unions call on government to impose further COVID-19 restrictions

Unions representing more than 113,000 Saskatchewan workers are pleading with the provincial government to immediately mandate public health measures based on recommendations from the province’s top doctor.

In an effort to slow the community spread of COVID-19 and preserve services and programs, union leaders for the health-care and education sectors want the province to implement a 10-person cap on gathering limits and create a public health order around limiting non-essential contacts, establishing a “consistent bubble” and reducing non-essential travel between communities.

“The workers are tired,” said Judy Henley, Saskatchewan president for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

“We need to make sure we have the health-care services and all other services for the people of Saskatchewan.”

Henley’s calls were echoed by five other organizations during a virtual press conference on Thursday hosted by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL), Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF), Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN), Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU), Service Employees International Union West (SEIU-West) and CUPE.

“Travel limits will protect rural communities,” Henley said.

“Right now, services that are out in rural communities are limited, even vaccinations and testing.”

In a press conference on Jan. 12, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer reiterated the public should avoid all non-essential gatherings, and limit contacts to only school and work.

“Certainly being cautious against any gatherings in the house or any gatherings in any public place, where it is not essential, I think can only help,” said Dr. Saqib Shahab.

In a statement, Premier Scott Moe said the government is using “real-time data” from across the country to guide its COVID-19 response.

“The government recognizes that hospitalizations are rising and will continue to rise for some period of time,” Moe said.

“However, we see no clear evidence that lockdown measures have reduced hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths in other provinces and as a result, there is no reason to impose harmful new restrictions in Saskatchewan.”

Henley said the premier is playing politics, adding it is up to Moe, as well as employers, to keep the workplace safe. Right now, she said, workers feel disrespected and unprotected.

“He has given many people a false sense of security that everything is OK and it’s not OK.”

Staffing Shortages

Health authority staff absences are up 140 per cent compared to the fourth wave, according to SHA officials, with roughly 1,000 employees taking time off work in the first week of January due to COVID-19.

According to SUN president Tracy Zambory, some hospital wards are short 10 staff members each day.

“People are suffering. Morale is low. They cannot continue on,” Zambory said.

Barbara Cape, SEIU-West president, said staffing shortages and burnout are leading to a, “lack of focus and concentration on (employees’) ability to do their work.”

In some cases, Cape said union members are working 16 to 20 hours in a day to cover vacant shifts.

“When you look at their ability to provide bedside care or to manage the cleanliness, the dietary needs or the provision of medications to residents, mistakes are going to be made,” Cape said.

According to Cape, healthcare services are already being impacted by the Omicron wave. She said there are reductions to services such as dialysis, as well as reduced care provided in long-term care homes.

Disruptions to in-class learning

In the education system, Saskatchewan Teachers Federation President, Patrick Maze, said Omicron is impacting resources, supports and, ultimately, students’ learning.

“Substitute teachers are playing a vital role in keeping schools open, but there aren't enough to provide coverage,” Maze said, adding the education system entered the pandemic with a substitute shortage.

“Some schools have had to find non-instructional and unqualified staff to simply offer supervision due to a shortage of substitutes.”

According to Maze, some English as an additional language programs are being shuttered in order to reassign teachers to different classrooms. He said the same thing is happening to instructors assigned to students with high needs.

“Those are some of our most vulnerable students, and they're losing the supports and the education they require.”

Maze said schools are a function of the community and without restrictions on community gatherings, COVID transmission in schools is, “inevitable.”

According to Dr. Shahab, nearly one quarter of COVID-19 transmission happens in schools. About 50 per cent happens in households and the rest takes place outside of those settings.

Last week, both Catholic and public school divisions in Regina and Saskatoon had hundreds of self-reported COVID cases, forcing a number of classrooms to move to remote learning.

Kevin Gabel, executive director of the programs branch for the Ministry of Education, said school divisions are working closely with their local medical health officers to do what is in the “best interest of all children.” He said the main focus is keeping schools open and kids inside the classroom.

Like the government, Maze believes the best way for students to learn is in-person. However, he calls the back-and-forth from in-person to remote learning “disruptive.”

“Unfortunately, everything COVID-related has become a divisive issue, but we must all agree that a child's education is critical and essential,” he said.