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'Completely irresponsible': Union slams Southlake for laying off 97 nurses during pandemic

Newmarket hospital officials cite 'substantial deficit' for cuts to RN jobs, as well as 34 management and clerical positions
USED Southlake sign 1 KC
Southlake Regional Health Centre. File photo/NewmarketToday

The union that represents Ontario’s registered nurses today slammed Newmarket’s Southlake hospital for its decision to lay off nearly 100 RNs during the COVID pandemic over budget constraints.

“During a global pandemic when registered nurses are needed to provide frontline care, Southlake Regional Health Centre will be laying off 97 registered nurses. This works out to be more than 176,000 hours of RN direct patient care lost to cuts,” Ontario Nurses’ Association president Vicki McKenna said in a Sept. 22 statement.

"I cannot fathom how Southlake Regional Health Centre CEO Arden Krystal can justify cutting frontline registered nurses during a global pandemic," McKenna added. "With the second wave of COVID-19 and the upcoming influenza season, which will put undue pressure on all hospitals, cutting registered nurses is completely irresponsible."

McKenna said the cuts are widespread and occurring at many busy acute care units in which patient acuity is very high. 

"These cuts will devastate the Newmarket community," said McKenna. "The hospital cites its budget as the reason for the cuts and, if this is so, then the government needs to immediately step in and do an audit and prevent these layoffs from happening. ...This needs to stop and stop now."

In an emailed statement to NewmarketToday, Southlake spokesperson Kathryn Perrier said the hospital is facing significant financial challenges similar to other hospitals in Ontario, and its own “substantial deficit” is unrelated to COVID-19 and predates the pandemic. 

Southlake will also eliminate 34 management and administrative/clerical positions, in addition to the 15 reductions made last year, noted Perrier.

"Given the number of current and potential future vacancies we have, we are hopeful to avoid any involuntary frontline employment loss," Perrier said. "Southlake is planning to reduce a total of 95 registered nurse positions. Our plan is to add 49 registered practical nurse positions. We are also planning to add 29 patient services partner positions and three social worker positions."

Meanwhile, the local hospital has announced a series of changes to address this while maintaining the same high-quality care that it provides to the communities it serves, said Perrier. 

These changes include an updated model of care in some of Southlake’s inpatient units that will enable each member of its interprofessional clinical team to work at the highest scope of their practice, she said.

Hospital officials are also focusing ambulatory care programs on acute services that will reduce "hallway health care" at Southlake and help patients have an earlier discharge home or avoid admission in the first place. 

“These changes are aligned to the broader health-care system transformation underway in Ontario, which emphasizes moving care into the community where it is easier for patients and families to access,” Perrier said. “In addition to making these changes, we are partnering with Ontario Health Central Region on an independent external review by a third party.” 

The objective of that review is to examine the hospital’s funding position, its actions to date, and to gain an understanding of funding requirements for 2020/21 and beyond.

Perrier added that the hospital is following the collective agreements with its union partners and, based on those agreements, some clinical staff may move to another area of the hospital. 

“In these cases, appropriate skills development and supports will be provided,” she said. “In a number of programs, we will be actively hiring more frontline unionized clinical staff. Southlake is doing everything we can to mitigate any negative impact to our staff.”

But union president McKenna took aim at Southlake, saying it has been plagued with many preventable issues over the course of several years. 

“In fact, just last week, there was a court appearance regarding an ongoing workplace violence issue in which a nurse and a security guard were critically injured,” said McKenna. “Rather than complying with orders to prevent an incident like this from happening again, Southlake is choosing to fight the charges, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees in the process.”

Union bargaining unit president Jill Moore said its members have formally notified Southlake hundreds of times over the past years about deplorable conditions in which they work.

"Nurses are working short-staffed, but one of our biggest concerns is surge capacity. When our patient numbers increase, as they typically do during a pandemic, we often do not have enough staff resources to provide quality patient care, let alone trying to serve a population that is growing by leaps and bounds,” Moore said in a statement. 

“What is most distressing is that the employer has said that these 97 layoffs are the best-case scenario,” added Moore. “I cannot imagine what more layoffs will do for patient care."

A spokesperson for Newmarket-Aurora MPP and Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is investing $3.3 billion more in health care this year, the largest year-over-year increase in a decade, and it will continue to work with the local hospital to understand its systems needs, particularly in the fight against COVID-19. 

"Southlake received a funding increase of over $5 million this year to expand frontline services for the people of York Region," the emailed statement said. "Hospitals are in charge of their own operations and operational decision-making. That said, when making planning decisions, we expect all hospitals to minimize impacts on frontline care."

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Kim Champion

About the Author: Kim Champion

Kim Champion is a veteran journalist and editor who covers Newmarket and issues that impact York Region.
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