British Columbia

Front-line workers on Downtown Eastside say staffing shortage adds to COVID-19 risk

Hundreds of front-line staff working on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside say a staffing shortage is putting them and the residents they serve at risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. 

PHS Community Services says housing shortage extends across non-profit housing sector

Some workers on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside say they're concerned about their safety and that of the residents they serve. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Front-line workers on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside say a staffing shortage is putting them and the disadvantaged residents they serve at risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. 

CUPE Local 1004, the union that serves about 700 employees of the PHS Community Services Society, says it has heard from several people who say they lack the support to do their work safely and keep the coronavirus from spreading. 

"PHS is in a real staffing crisis and that's leading to our members not having enough co-workers by their side to help do the work ... during this pandemic," said CUPE Local 1004 president Andrew Ledger.  

Each month, there are up to 300 shifts that go unfilled at the many single room occupancy hotels and health services that PHS manages, Ledger says.

'It keeps me up at night'

The risk of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading to the Downtown Eastside, where people with pre-existing health conditions often live cheek by jowl in single room occupancy hotels with shared bathrooms and kitchens, has been a strong point of concern for many

"It keeps me up at night," Ledger said. 

The Pennsylvania Hotel on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is one of several properties managed by the PHS Community Services Society. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

PHS Community Services CEO Micheal Vonn acknowledged the union's concerns, but says the staffing shortages are across the non-profit housing sector — not just her organization.

In an attempt to remedy the situation, Vonn says the B.C. Non-profit Housing Association recently put up an online portal to connect the newly unemployed with job opportunities in the sector. 

"We have been onboarding new staff at a phenomenal rate and are quite delighted with the quality of the candidates who are coming to us," Vonn said.

Stretched thin

PHS has been stretched thin, Vonn says, especially as the province relies increasingly on its support to manage new temporary residences for the homeless, like those living in tent cities in Victoria and Vancouver

But Ledger says PHS is hit particularly hard by the staffing shortage because the organization doesn't pay its employees as much as comparable agencies — a sticking point that has kept the union and PHS from putting forward a collective agreement in the past year. 

Discussions mediated by veteran negotiator Vince Ready are in the works. 

Safety 'top of mind'

Meanwhile, Ledger says, union members like the front-line workers who care for single room occupancy hotels may not have time to do the extra sanitizing and other additional work required of them at the moment.

Ledger says staff are already busy dispensing medication, tending to overdoses and helping residents with mental health needs. 

Vonn says the safety of staff and clients is "top of mind and our No. 1 focus throughout this pandemic."

Workers on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside say they're concerned that a staffing shortage could put vulnerable residents at risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The organization is working closely with health partners like Vancouver Coastal Health, she says, and adapting quickly to rapidly-changing guidelines. That includes providing staff with training and personal protective equipment like face masks. 

"At this point in time we are just phenomenally pleased that we are able to keep up," she said.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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