Who are Manitoba's Health Care Heroes?

*as seen in the Winnipeg Free Press, April 4, 2020

Manitoba’s health care support workers are on the front-line in the fight against COVID-19 in our community. But who are these front-line heroes, and what do they do?


“Many people may be familiar with the important roles of doctors and nurses, and they often get a lot of media attention,” says Debbie Boissonneault, President of CUPE Local 204, representing 14,000 health care support workers in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and Shared Health. “But the work of support workers is also critical to the success of our health care system and should never be ignored.”


In Manitoba, health care support workers represented by CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) are divided into two areas: Community Support and Facility Support.


Facility Support workers are the pillars of our health care facilities. These workers keep our hospitals, long-term care homes, and other health facilities safe, clean, and operational. Maintenance, mechanics, engineers, trades people, materials management, security, warehouse, Information Technology and more all work behind the scenes to make sure our health facilities are working and resourced.


Porters carefully move patients and critical health care equipment to their destinations, ensuring our system has what it needs, when and where it is needed.


Other Facility Support workers include Clerks, secretaries, health records, and accounting & finance, who all keep our facilities in order.


Housekeeping, laundry and more are critical to keep our facilities clean. This is especially important in the context of COVID-19, where patients and residents rely on these staff to reduce the risk of contact with germs. But they are always the first line of defence in preventing other health care acquired infections.


And of course dietary, cooks, regional distribution facility staff, and all those who work to provide nutrition to those in care.


Community Support workers deal directly with patients and residents. This includes health care aides, home care attendants, recreation, rehabilitation, mental health facilitators, and more.


These workers are on the front-line caring for the health and recovery of Manitoba’s patients and residents, and giving dignity to seniors in care homes.


Without health care support staff our health care system simply won’t work,” says Boissonneault of CUPE 204. “CUPE Local 204 takes the health & safety and workplace rights of all support staff seriously. And so should all Manitobans.”


Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, CUPE 204 has been working with health authorities to ensure support workers’ rights are being protected, and when there are challenges, CUPE 204 is fighting to ensure those challenges are overcome. Whether its access to personal protective equipment, or ensuring workers are being treated fairly, CUPE 204 is caring for the caregivers.


But the challenges many health care facilities are facing during this COVID-19 pandemic are not new ones. Decades of understaffing in care homes, the neglect of home care workers, and under-resourced hospitals has led to a health care system that is struggling to cope with a global pandemic.


“Governments have pushed for a ‘leaner’ health care system and have made many cuts in recent years; an approach that has resulted in fewer staff, fewer hours of care, and inadequate levels of personal protective equipment in stock,” says Boissonneault. “Government must understand that when you cut the health care system while times are good, there won’t be enough support when times suddenly get tough.”


CUPE 204 has been advocating for stronger investments in health care and ensuring adequate staffing levels across the system. CUPE 204 also believes that the government’s wage freeze for health care workers is hurting our health care staff and shows disrespect for the work they do, especially when health care workers are putting themselves at higher risk of contact with COVID-19.


“Health care support staff are stepping up in the fight against COVID-19, and are our community’s heroes,” says Boissonneault. “But let’s not forget them when the pandemic is past us. They need support every day in the work they do to help our seniors in care homes, our patients in hospitals, and our loved ones in home care.”


CUPE 204 represents 14,000 health care support staff in the WRHA and Shared Health. CUPE is Manitoba and Canada’s largest health care union.