Union: 'Ongoing complaints' about burnout ignored by Mackie, MLHU

While no formal notices have been filed, the union representing workers at the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) says they have complained about being overworked and burning out.

"Members have complained about the work environment not being good, but a lot of people don't want to pursue things because they don't want to make it worse. They choose not to use the union to go and do anything because there's fear of reprisals," said CUPE Local 101 President Steve Holland.

The pandemic has led to MLHU employees working 12-hour shifts, but when they took requests for help to then Medical Officer of Health Dr. Chris Mackie, they were rejected, according to the union.

The health unit announced Nov. 15 Mackie was taking a leave of absence, but provided no details on the reason for the leave.

But Holland says union members have described Mackie as dismissive, condescending and confrontational, and says he was never held accountable by the Board of Health, and was, in fact, protected.

"You look at the fact that Dr. Mackie received a six-figure overtime…and I don't know how any agency can afford to give one person six figures in overtime."

He would have liked to see the board bring the concerns forward to council so they could be acted on.

"People need to step up, protect people, show they have a vested interest in the well-being of members and act on it, and right now I'm hoping that we're turning the corner."

Middlesex County Warden Cathy Burghardt-Jesson says while the city and county have a vested interest in the health unit's operation, they have no operational role and she hasn't heard about any staffing concerns.

"I still have faith and trust in that governance model of a Board of Directors and I do believe that a board will proceed appropriately with concerns of personnel that they're dealing with…Nothing has come to the county to have us question that otherwise."

However, she believes the whole situation is "unfortunate on a number of levels" and that there must be a process where employee concerns can be heard where they don't fear retribution and are protected.

“We still don’t know the nature of (Mackie's) leave. Whether it’s administrative, whether it’s medical, personal, whatever. We still don’t know that. As much as we have to be concerned if there’s merit to these allegations…there also has to be concern for (Mackie) as well to make sure that he’s looking after himself as he needs to as well.”

She does expect the board to act if there are formal complaints.

There has been precedence for independent investigators to be called in when there are allegations of toxicity or workplace harassment.

When civic employees at the London Police Service complained about the work environment in 2018, a review that included an independent third party was undertaken.

Mackie did not respond to requests for comment.

Health unit responds to workplace reports

Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Alex Summers did not directly address allegations against Mackie, but he did acknowledge "some recent news articles regarding the work environment" at the health unit during a virtual media briefing Thursday.

Summers said he's proud of their response during a "pandemic of the century" that has dominated daily life, but recognizes the stress on staff.

"It's been a challenging time to work in a public health unit…Our response is only possible because of our people, our staff. As a team and as an organization, we have strived to support them through these challenging years recognizing the massive amount of work and stress that they have been faced with."

He admitted the move from a Monday to Friday, nine-to-five operation, to 12-hour days, seven days a week has presented challenges, but says they are continuing to recruit staff as they integrate the COVID-19 response into ongoing operations.

"To bolster the ranks, we've recruited massively and nearly tripled our workforce in an effort to address the substantial needs of our community and the work that continues to come in."

Summers says they've been meeting weekly with union partners to deal with what he describes as a "difficult and persistent challenge to balance the demands of this virus with the understandable fatigue that we're all feeling in all parts of the public health and health care system."

The health unit has also reportedly added a number of mental health and wellness supports for staff.

"We see daily how leaders support staff, staff support leaders, and how staff support each other, all the while continuing to deliver on our mission and mandate to protect and promote the health of this community."

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