Ohlson: Federal health workers are unsung heroes

More than 4,400 Health Services Group members demand competitive compensation and oppose uncontrolled outsourcing.

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At the heart of Canada's sprawling healthcare system, a band of tireless warriors operates largely in secret, but their influence is felt across the country.

These dedicated professionals include doctors, nurses, registered nurses, social workers, psychologists, pharmacists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nutritionists, dentists and veterinarians.

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They all bring to their work a depth and breadth of expertise and institutional knowledge that is essential to addressing the diverse health needs of some of the most vulnerable Canadians, who often lack alternative health care options.

Her story, often overshadowed by larger narratives, is one of dedication, resilience and an unwavering commitment to some of Canada's most remote and vulnerable communities.

From the icy vastness of the north where First Nations, Inuit and Métis serve, to the challenging environments of federal prisons and military bases, these individuals are the backbone of a system facing unprecedented challenges – from substandard salaries to violence Workplace.

Recently, a soldier was charged with forcible confinement, assault with a weapon and criminal damage to property at the 5th Division Support Base Medical Center in Gagetown. This incident involved a healthcare professional and reportedly attempted to attack a nurse with a bladed weapon.

This type of violence not only endangers the health and well-being of workers. It also creates an environment that undermines the effectiveness of Canada's health care system.

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Despite working in environments where the risk of such violent incidents is heightened, federal health care workers are also paid less than their provincial counterparts.

This inequality not only undermines efforts to attract and retain top talent, but also lowers the morale of those committed to this important public service. These challenges are compounded by a broader workforce crisis across provincial health networks.

Another lesser-known fact about public health at the federal level is the phenomenon of deprofessionalization of services that we have been observing for several years.

Deprofessionalization occurs when the federal government hires underqualified and underqualified temporary workers from private health agencies to do the work of trained professionals.

Over-reliance on outsourcing leads to unintended consequences such as rising costs and also threatens the sustainability of healthcare delivery. This disrupts continuity and negatively impacts the quality of care, particularly for vulnerable groups, and risks profit being prioritized over patient welfare.

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Reliance on outside contractors also results in a fragmented healthcare system, where public sector colleagues performing the exact same tasks receive lower compensation for the same work.

To address these challenges, the next collective bargaining agreement must incorporate competitive compensation and robust recruitment and retention strategies.

To bring federal health worker salaries to 2021 levels, we are calling for an overall economic increase of 12.5 percent to address high inflation and the current economic situation.

In addition, catch-up pay is required for certain occupations to ensure greater alignment with provincial counterparts' wages. Federal nurses need an 8.7 per cent increase to match provincial nurses' salaries – with an additional increase for nurses in remote units. Federal psychologists are calling for a catch-up increase of 38 per cent to better align with salaries in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta. Federal social workers need 18 per cent more to catch up with their counterparts in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. These professionals are currently in negotiations after their collective agreement expires in September 2022.

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We must rally support for policies that recognize and promote the contributions of federal health professionals. This includes collective bargaining that ensures competitive remuneration and resists unbridled outsourcing. In this way, we not only support these essential workers, but also protect the integrity and sustainability of the healthcare system and the well-being of patients.

We must recognize and value the unique contributions of health professionals to public service. Their unwavering commitment deserves recognition and concrete support in building a resilient and sustainable health system that truly serves.

Lynn Ohlson is President of the Health Services Group, which consists of more than 4,400 employees and is a bargaining unit represented by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) in the central federal public administration.

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