Battered Sask. workers need help, not inaction

Labour | Stephen Whitworth

Working can be risky business. This isn’t news — workers have risked injury from dangerous equipment, hazardous materials and unsafe conditions as long as there has been work.

What has changed for many workers is a rising threat from some members of the public, as increasing social instability and post-pandemic stress fuels anger and aggression in more and more people.

You don’t have to look past recent headlines: bus drivers afraid to come to work because of verbal abuse, assault and even getting bear sprayed. Library workers attacked by teenagers. Hospital workers on edge as the healthcare system is overwhelmed by people trapped in a poverty-fueled addictions crisis.

The fact is violence is a problem for too many Saskatchewan workers. 

“If you look across the unionized and non-unionized sectors in the province, I think violence — whether it’s verbal or physical or mental violence — is growing across both sectors. I really believe that,” says Barb Cape.

Cape is the president of the Service Employees International Union-West, a union directly representing approximately 12,000 Saskatchewan workers primarily in health care, libraries, education, care homes and home care.

The stories Cape hears from SEIU-West members are disturbing.

Trouble At Home

Home care, which involves workers entering private homes to provide services, is an area with an extra layer of built-in tension, says Cape.

“I just had a conversation a couple of nights ago with folks in Saskatoon home care, and they were talking about being kicked and punched and spit on,” she says.

“This is a unique workplace, obviously, because they’re going into other people’s homes to provide care and support,” says Cape. “It truly is a compromised situation simply because you’re working in isolation from other workers who may be able to come and help to de-escalate a situation. But it’s also someone’s personal home, so it’s not a neutral environment. That adds to the complexity of the situation.”

It gets worse, and weirder. Cape shares a story about one worker who, in an absurd turn of events, faced a violent situation while commuting between homecare shifts.

“One of the folks told me they’ve had their windshield smashed just driving to client’s homes,” says Cape. “This particular homecare worker had 15 minutes to travel between clients, and he stopped to check his notes and, you know, make sure he knew which schedule he was working on.

“He went inside [a restaurant] to grab a coffee, came back out, and someone had smashed his windshield,” she says. “There’s danger to the person, but there’s also danger to their vehicles when they’re going to serve a client.”

Workers in more-staffed care and retirement facilities face violence as well, says Cape.

“There’s a requirement you’re at a higher level of need to access services in long-term care,” says Cape. “As those clients or residents get to that level, their health — mentally, physically and emotionally — becomes far more fragile. You think about how dementia and Alzheimer’s affect [a person]. It’s frustrating. And when people are frustrated, they lash out.

“There’s pinching… when I say ‘pinching’, people think it’s just a little pinch,” says Cape. “No, it’s pinching and twisting to the point where people are bruised or skin is broken,”

How bad does it get?

“I’ve had members in my home facility get punched, get their glasses broken, get kicked,” says Cape. “I had a member who was grabbed in the crotch. And these are just the people who tell me these stories. There are so many more stories that people don’t say anything about because they’re embarrassed. They wonder if it’s their fault.”

And when these incidents are reported? The victim can be made to feel like they’re at fault.

“The first question in a workplace investigation is ‘what happened? Far too often, that’s followed by ‘what could you have done differently?’,” says Cape.

Between violence and employer guilt trips, one wonders how anyone can do this work, day after day.

“These folks are tough as nails, but soft and so loving at their core,” says Cape. “They have to be tough in this system.”

Library Violence, Hospital Chaos

CUPE Saskatchewan president Kent Peterson agrees workplace violence is worsening.

“Our members work in both urban libraries like Saskatoon and Regina, but also regional libraries, which are funded by the provincial government,” says Peterson. “And no matter where people are working in libraries, they are experiencing a significant increase in violence.”

Some examples have to do with computer access and restroom misuse, says Peterson.

“They have to monitor computer use and sometimes do bathroom checks to see what’s going on, and they’re [interacting with] people with homelessness or addictions issues who can become violent when staff approach them,” says Peterson.

Beyond that?

“We’ve had members that work in libraries threatened with kidnapping in the parking lot,” Peterson says. “They’ve had knives pulled on them,” he says.

“[Workers have] been shouted at, pushed, kicked — all those sorts of things happen to people who work in our library system,” Peterson says.

SEIU-West and CUPE also represent hospital staff. As anyone who’s visited a waiting room in the last few years knows, hospitals are not Saskatchewan’s calmest, most relaxed facilities — for patients OR staff.

“Emergency rooms in Saskatoon and Regina have security officers stationed in the emergency room itself just to sort of be a presence,” says Cape. “Also to address issues in the moment. They’re seeing more and more violence because of the heightened circumstances, the heightened emotional circumstances, around a visit to the ER.”

“A lot of folks will come in who may be in the throes of a mental health episode or struggling with a bad trip from a drug interaction,” says Cape. “And that is, that’s a huge issue that we’re seeing. Not just at [Saskatoon’s] St. Paul’s hospital, which is in a bit of a tougher neighbourhood, but in every ER.

Peterson seconds Cape’s concern.

“We’re dealing with patients and families and members of the general public that are often not doing well — that’s why they’re in a health care facility — or frustrated, or experiencing, again, the challenges that come along with poverty and homelessness,” he says.

“And the employer is not providing the proper conditions to keep our members safe from violence,” says Peterson.

Desperately Seeking Solutions

Where there are problems, there are solutions, somebody probably once said. I’m not going to look it up because that’s just dumb.

The truth is, solutions to tough problems like increasingly violent workplaces need to come from clear, honest thinking, proper resource allocation, respect and communication between employers and workers, and hard work.

“I think the first thing is, we need to speak openly and honestly about the conditions people are working in, says Cape. “Whether it’s mental or physical abuse that’s being suffered by the workers, we need to openly acknowledge that it is a present danger and it is not part of the job.”

Peterson is on the same page.

“Employers have a responsibility to ensure safe workplaces,” Peterson says. “And that includes ending violence in workplaces.

Peterson has further suggestions.

“Hire experts in some of these places, like mental health and addictions intervention workers, social workers and medical response personnel,” Peterson says. “And you know, sometimes it’s necessary to hire security personnel but we gotta make sure that they are properly trained so that they’re not making already bad situations worse. If you’re hiring security personnel in some of these facilities, they’ve got to understand trauma and mental health and what folks are dealing with — and be able to de-escalate.

“If we can make sure that those folks are skilled and trained and have the equipment they need to intervene, then that takes some of that risk off of our members, who are there trying to do a different job,” Peterson says.

Fair wages are part of the solution too, adds Cape.

“We have members who work at the Metis Addictions Council of Saskatchewan. I mean, it’s really hard to stay in that profession when you don’t get paid for your education, your training and your services, and you have to fight for every nickel and dime you get. Particularly because it’s a community-based organization. And the government doesn’t want to turn their minds to the importance of addictions treatment and counselling,” says Cape.

Ah yes, the Saskatchewan Party provincial government. It’s responsible for education, health care, social services and other rapidly crumbling components of this provinces’ public and social infrastructure.

Peterson singles it out for criticism.

“The provincial government funds many, if not all in some form, of the places where our members work, and they have a responsibility to create safe workplaces,” says Peterson.  “Violence and unsafe workplaces are a choice. Scott Moe, and employers, could end violence in the workplace today by listening to frontline workers and actually investing in safer workplaces.

“It is a choice that they’ve made not to,” concludes Peterson.

Saskatchewan’s punched, pinched, pushed, bruised, abused, grabbed and threatened public-facing workers have probably started noticing.