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Hostilities affect workplace wellness survey of provincial government workers during COVID-19

Union, labour dept. official offer widely different views.
Hostilities affect workplace wellness
Workplace wellness for hospital workers along with other provincial government employees has been a contentious issue since COVID-19 hit Alberta. Photo submitted

Workplace wellness has been a controversial issue among provincial government employees in the COVID-19 era.

On the heels of an article looking at workplace wellness in the private sector, Great West Newspapers tackled the same topic for those employed by the Alberta government.

With hostilities between the province and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees at a fever pitch over health care layoffs, the question about workplace wellness elicited – predictably – opposite responses.

An official with the union representing the 90,000 provincial government employees responded with sharp criticism of the premier when asked what the province has done to address workplace wellness since the pandemic hit Alberta.

“A major challenge has been keeping their spirits up while Jason Kenney is continually attacking them," said Susan Slade, vice-president of the AUPE. "Kenney calls them heroes one day and zeroes the next.

"After seven months of proving their dedication to keeping Albertans safe, at the risk of their own health, Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the government announced that they would be laying off 11,000 health-care workers while we are still fighting this deadly pandemic."

When asked what the province has done to support and assist government employees since COVID-19 hit Alberta, Labour and Immigration press secretary Adrienne South provided a list of eight initiatives, most related to workplace safety and health protocols.

She finished by stating the Alberta government acted "quickly to support employees by making changes to the Employment Standards Code to provide job protected leave for Albertans who need to self-isolate, care for children affected by school and daycare closures, or take care of ill or isolated family members."

When asked what type of specific support has been provided for front-line workers, South said personal protection and family support top the list.

"Personal protective equipment is provided for employees who require it, as determined by their workplace hazard assessment. Employees are also regularly reminded of the support tools available, including family assistance programs."

Slade, however, said it has not been easy for government workers to secure PPE.

“We have had to fight for access to appropriate personal protective equipment, we have had to fight employer confusion and inconsistency over who can work remotely and the conditions for the return to work," she said.

“Working on the front lines has exposed AUPE members to health risks we haven’t seen for 100 years, but they have faced up to that challenge with courage and dedication.”

Slade said many of AUPE's members working in continuing care saw a financial hit from the government's decision to restrict those employees to working at a single site, a measure Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw announced in April to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

"It's unfair for this government to demand that people risk their lives to care for others and then pick their pockets. Despite this, these dedicated people kept showing up for work to help us all," she said, adding health workers also had the threat of looming pay and job cuts hanging over them.

"Morale is low among many of our members. They are exhausted after working so hard and often pulling lots of extra shifts."

South said another key role for the provincial government has been reinforcing COVID-19 protocols.

“Occupational Health and Safety conducts proactive inspections in workplaces as well as inspections at any worksites with outbreaks," she stated. "During inspections, OHS officers are promoting education and awareness of COVID-related hazards and control measures such as social distancing, personal protective equipment, sanitation and cleaning practices.”
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