Arbitrator to mediate sick-time policy dispute; VCH says program works and has saved $10 million in four years

Vancouver Sun

The B.C. Nurses' Union wants to scrap an unpopular workplace attendance scheme imposed by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and an independent arbitrator has been called in to mediate the dispute.
The four-year-old attendance and wellness program was implemented to increase productivity among health care workers by cutting down on sick days, but nurses maintain they are being harassed and forced to go to work when ill, jeopardizing their own health and that of patients.
"When it was first introduced, there were promises that it would be a compassion-ate program aimed at improving the health of our members and not punitive," said Debra McPherson, president of the union. "That's not how it turned out."
The program works with staff who take more sick time than the two-week annual average by offering wellness strategies, advice on nutrition, family counselling and child or elder care, according to Vancouver Coastal Health. Employees who have chronic conditions or one-time extended absences because of injury are exempt.
Before the program's launch in 2008, health care workers were logging nearly one mil-lion hours of leave each year at an annual cost of $35 million, according to health authority data. With the program in place, the amount of sick time per employee has dropped from 87 hours annually in 2008 to 74 hours in 2011.
This has saved $10 million in overtime pay for staff members covering for their ill colleagues, said Anne Harvey, Vancouver Coastal Health's vice-president of human resources. The nature of 24-hour shift work makes it difficult to replace sick workers on short notice, she said.
More than 300,000 productivity hours have been brought back into patient care since the program's inception, a number Harvey suggests is equivalent to having 400 full-time employees.
"What is really important to us is the staffing," she said. "For us, it's having the nurses at work. That is more important than the money."
However, McPherson said the program has left members crying, distraught and working when they are sick to avoid meeting with managers and human resources personnel. She stressed the union does not support nurses who phone in sick without being ill.
Health care workers have high illness rates because they're exposed to germs each day at work and shift work compromises their immune systems, she said.
McPherson said employees who had been through the meetings found the experience "demoralizing" and she has been swamped by "hundreds of complaints" from employees at hospitals, including Vancouver General, Lions Gate and Richmond.
"They ask them to meet arbitrary standards and then threaten [nurses] with a reduction in [working hours] or dismissal if they fail to meet those standards," McPherson said.
But Harvey insists no nurses have been fired by the health authority over sick leave and said Vancouver Coastal Health had previously asked the BCNU to identify their concerns. Harvey also added that no individuals have stepped forward so far to voice their grievances.
"They gave us a letter with a number of claims but no evidence," she said. "We still don't have specifics and we don't know what issues we need to address."
In spite of the nurses' com-plaints, Harvey said the pro-gram has resulted in better patient care. "We know there will be more demands on health care services in the future, but not an increase in funding," said Harvey. "If our public health system is to survive the next few years, then it's really important we have a healthy workforce that can come to work on a regular basis."
The next phase in the arbitration process will take place on Sept. 2 and Sept. 3, according to McPherson. Vancouver Coastal Health also confirmed that a coalition of unions including the Hospital Employees' Union and the Health Sciences Association of B.C. will be entering arbitration in October to con-test the attendance and wellness program.