Ontario coroners looking to unionize over working conditions and upcoming reforms
By Liam Casey
Burned out and fed up with working conditions they say are unfair, Ontario’s coroners are pushing to be allowed to unionize — despite their first raise in more than a decade and a law preventing them from doing so.
The Ontario Coroners Association says coroners are frustrated with a new computer program that has increased workloads and lost data, and are concerned about growing reliance on nurses for investigations and a system that places all coroners on call.
Association president Dr. Jeannie Walton says Ontario’s approximately 350 coroners want to be paid fairly, with the raise announced this month marking only the beginning of improvements that are needed.
“It’s a start, but it’s nowhere near sufficient,” she says. “We’re not asking for anything outrageous.”
The province’s chief coroner has accepted responsibility for the years-long wait for better pay and admitted the troubles with the new computer system, but pledged better days ahead with “significant reforms” underway.
Dr. Dirk Huyer says he understands why coroners are trying to unionize, noting they were told for years that their pay was going to increase and working conditions would improve.
“I was too slow and I think people distrust that I was actually interested and supportive of them,” he says.
Huyer, who became chief coroner in 2013, says he initially chose to hold any changes until after the end of an inquiry into serial killer Elizabeth Wettlaufer, who killed eight long-term care residents in southwestern Ontario. That probe reviewed the coroner’s work.
But then came an auditor general’s review, so Huyer waited longer. Following that, Huyer brought in PricewaterhouseCoopers for a review of the coroner system in 2021.
“There’s no question I was too slow on it and I regret that,” Huyer says.
Ontario’s coroners have now filed a constitutional challenge to be able to unionize — doctors are not allowed by law to do so — and voted 96 per cent in favour of joining the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. A hearing is set for November.
If the coroners cannot achieve full unionization, they hope to come up with something akin to the Ontario Medical Association, which represents doctors and can negotiate with the government on their behalf.
The recent pressure has yielded some gains.
Earlier this month, Huyer presented a series of reforms, including an increase in pay.
As of Oct. 1, coroners will earn $525 per death investigation, up from the $450 per investigation they’ve earned since 2011. They will also have higher premiums for night and weekend work.
Walton, of the Ontario Coroners Association, says the raise doesn’t come with a plan for the coming years.
“There’s no contract, mention of annual increases, just ‘here’s your new salary’ and boom, that’s it,” she says. “But we have seen the chief coroner willing to listen lately, which is a huge improvement.”
Huyer has also set a “call schedule” to address the issue of coroners saying no to investigating a death. Walton says that approach is “missing the mark.”
“Most coroners have other jobs — their practices, their clinics — and this will require them to give up that work in order to be on call,” she says.
Huyer says the call schedule is necessary.
“We have a significant number of cases that are being done without physicians attending to scenes,” he says. “We don’t like that.”
Walton says that while coroners can carry out death investigations remotely, they don’t like doing so.
The situation usually involves being on the phone with a police officer on scene who needs to take photographs and examine a body by following instructions, she says.
“It creates a lot more work for us and police,” Walton says.
Another change being brought in by Huyer is an increased reliance on nurses.
There are about 15 nurses who work as coroners, Huyer says. They manage medical assistance in dying cases and cases that don’t fall under the Coroners Act.
Their duties will be expanding.
Currently, family doctors should be going to patients’ homes if they die suddenly with a known health problem. But about two million Ontarians are without a family physician and a doctor might refuse to attend a scene even for those who have one — so nurses will fill that gap, Huyer says.
Nurses will also be responsible for reviewing all long-term care death notices and, this fall, will be responsible for investigating all “uncomplicated accidental hip fracture deaths for those over 60” where going to the scene isn’t required.
Walton expressed concern with those changes.
“They’re taking away more paid work for us,” she says.
Case management system
Another issue for coroners recently has been a new case management system, called QuinC, Walton says. Coroners now fill out much more data on each investigation, she says.
“It is the most horrendous computer system you can imagine,” Walton says. “It has significantly increased the workload burdens of everybody.”
Death investigation data has also gone missing in the system, she says, which means coroners look at their notes and input the data again.
“Recently a coroner was sent 20 cases, some of which were back to when the system was implemented in 2021 and asked to re-enter all the data,” Walton says. “This is a serious problem.”
The system frustrations have led to many coroners refusing to pick up cases, Walton says.
Huyer admits the program creates more work, but says the wage increase is partly to reflect the increased workload. While some data did go missing, he says most of it was recovered and the issue has been addressed.
He also says data collection through the new system is crucial.
“The best way for prevention is population health data,” he says, adding that race and Indigenous identity are now mandatory fields. “So we’re asking them now to collect determinants of health.”
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