Montreal

Sherbrooke nurse suspended for complaining about working conditions in private online chat group, says union

The union for health care workers in the Eastern Townships is filing a grievance after a nurse was suspended last December for complaining about working conditions in a private Facebook Messenger chat group.

Eastern Townships regional health agency denies staff working under 'code of silence'

The Syndicat des professionnels en soins des Cantons-de-l'Est (FIQ) believes a colleague of the nurse who was suspended may have shared content from a private chat group on Facebook Messenger. (Jenny Kane/The Associated Press)

The union that represents health care workers in the Eastern Townships says employees who don't respect "a code of silence" within the workplace risk facing disciplinary measures.

The regional health agency, the CIUSSS de l'Estrie-CHUS, suspended a nurse after she complained about working conditions on a Facebook Messenger group chat with co-workers, according to the Syndicat des professionnels en soin des Cantons de l'Est.

President Sophie Séguin said the local health board should listen to employees' concerns instead of punishing them for speaking out.

Séguin said the nurse, who asked the union to preserve her anonymity, created a chat group with some colleagues last December and reported "well-known issues" within the health network.

One of her co-workers likely shared the content of those messages with administrators, said Séguin. The nurse was then suspended for one month.

During the same period, another nurse, Jean-Sébastien Blais, was also suspended for three weeks after he published a public message on Facebook describing a lack of resources for mental health services in the region.

The union has filed grievances in both cases.

"What we want to denounce is the Omertà" within the region's public health board, said Séguin. 

She said employees feel the need to speak out publicly because management "doesn't move fast enough to solve the problems" that exist in certain sectors, she said.

'No Omertà'

"There is no Omertà within our establishment," a spokesperson for the CIUSSS de l'Estrie-CHUS responded.

Geneviève Lemay said the board cannot comment on individual situations regarding employees.

However, in an emailed statement to CBC News, Lemay said "staff members entirely have the right to express themselves on social media regarding their working conditions and work environment, without exposing themselves to the risk of disciplinary measures."

If "disciplinary measures are taken, it is because the comments made do not respect the rules and regulations that apply in our establishment," she said — for example, the health agency's policy on harassment and its rules on social media usage.

According to the union representing health workers in the Eastern Townships, two nurses were suspended in December 2019 for voicing their complaints about working conditions: the first in a private chat group, the second in a public Facebook post. (Martin Bilodeau/Radio-Canada)

The office of Health Minister Danielle McCann said personnel issues are confidential but said the minister spoke with CIUSSS officials about these kinds of situations and called any "code of silence" "unacceptable."

Séguin said the union fears this kind of precedent will lead to workers not coming forward when problems surface.

"If people are afraid of speaking out and no longer want to give their opinion, how will we find solutions to these problems?" she asked.

The union will be holding a meeting with management at the end of January to address some of these issues.

'No such thing as privacy'

The professional order representing Quebec nurses said it is important that overworked health care workers go to the right place with their concerns.

"If the workflow doesn't allow nurses to provide adequate care, they should turn to their internal nursing committees to share their opinions," said the order's president, Luc Mathieu.

Sophie Brochu, a Montreal lawyer who specializes in labour relations, said this kind of situation is happening more and more often in the workplace, because people "assume Facebook is not in the public domain and is their own space to communicate with their friends and family."

But whether the comments are made publicly or within a private platform, she said employees should know "there is no such thing as privacy on Facebook."

For health care workers, balancing their obligations to their employer and respecting their own code of ethics "can come into conflict."

"They are in a very tight spot," Brochu said.

Conversations that used to stay at the dinner table after a hard day's work can be traced back to an employee, she warned.

"You have a duty of loyalty to your employer. You cannot harm or damage their reputation in any time, and that applies everywhere."

With reporting from CBC's Josh Grant and Radio-Canada

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