By Marisela Amador
Quebec’s emergency rooms are overcrowded and workers are in short supply, but for the past week a spotlight has shone on the price paid by health-care staff for illicit snacking.
There was disbelief Dec. 2 when the Journal de Montreal reported that a nurse in a long-term care facility south of Montreal had been accused of theft and suspended three days without pay for eating a slice of toast and peanut butter intended for residents.
In the following days, similar suspensions came to light. An orderly who had been working 21 years in a long-term care facility in Montreal was suspended 30 days in the summer of 2020 for eating a doughnut taken from the kitchen. La Presse reported the case of an orderly in Longueuil who was suspended five days without pay for eating a slice of pizza and confronting a colleague whom she suspected of reporting her to management.
Jennifer Genest, vice-president of a Quebec union representing health-care workers in private residences for the elderly, said her union has been denouncing these types of disciplinary measures for years.
“We are all aware of the critical staffing shortages throughout our health-care system right now. No one is able to fill their staffing needs, especially when it comes to nurses and orderlies,” Genest said in an interview on Thursday. “All departments are understaffed, and when a nurse or an orderly is suspended for such trivial actions, it only hurts the residents and patients.”
Genest said suspensions also lead to mandatory overtime for others, which negatively affects the remaining staff.
Politicians take note
Talk of purloined food made it to the national assembly this week. Liberal health critic Andre Fortin said suspensions alleging theft and a failure to be loyal toward the employer — “a month without pay for eating a doughnut, a week for a slice of bacon, a month for a sip of coffee” — made no sense.
“The issue is not the toast and the coffee,” Fortin said Wednesday during question period.
“The issue is the fact that we are short 10,000 health professionals at this time, and each time someone is suspended, it’s the patients who lose services.”
In response, Health Minister Christian Dube said the disputes reflect a workplace climate of confrontation and grievances. He said there is need for a “change of culture in our network” and that he wants health institutions to once again become “an employer of choice.” He also vowed that the government would look into the various reports of suspensions to determine what happened.
‘Unacceptable and incomprehensible’
Sarah Bigras, an aide to junior health minister Sonia Belanger, said in an email Thursday that the suspensions were “unacceptable and incomprehensible.”
“We do not think that we can currently afford to lose employees for matters about food,” Bigras said. “We need these employees to meet our challenges.”
The regional health authority for the Monteregie-Est region had already announced on Monday that it was rescinding its suspension of the toast-eating nurse and reinstating her at the Chevalier-De Levis long-term care centre in Longueuil. It said the disciplinary measure was too harsh for the act committed.
Daniel Laroche, president of the union representing health-care workers in Monteregie-Est, said the suspensions reported in the media were not isolated incidents, and the consequences on workers and on the care provided are significant, especially during an employee shortage.
“The message it sends to workers is that the slightest incident will cause disciplinary action by the employer,” Laroche said in an interview Thursday.
He emphasized the difficult conditions health-care workers face and said harsh disciplinary measures affect the performance of people who care for the most vulnerable in society. He also said that although these situations happen through the province’s health-care system, there seems to be a prevalence in long-term care centres and hospitals.
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