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4 nurses resigned from understaffed Whitehorse hospital last week, says Yukon union

The Yukon Employees' Union said hospital workers are overworked and staffing levels are critically low.

Hospital corp. disputes figure while union says system is 'on the verge of collapse'

The Whitehorse General Hospital is Yukon's largest hospital, with 56 beds as of 2019. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Yukon hospitals are "bleeding out" staff, putting the health care system on the "verge of collapse," according to the Yukon Employees Union (YEU).

The union says four nurses recently resigned from the Whitehorse hospital in a single day, though the body overseeing hospitals in the territory disputes that figure.

According to a joint press release issued Monday by the YEU and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the nurses resigned from Whitehorse General Hospital within a 12-hour period last week, due to "deplorable work conditions."

YEU president Steve Geick said hospital workers are overworked and staffing levels are critically low.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it, as far as morale and staffing go," Geick said, who added staffing has been a problem for several years.

"They're tired of being overworked and not being heard," Geick said. Some nurses are responsible for up to eight patients at a time, he said.

"I think people just had enough, and especially during this period of COVID[-19], I mean, it's utterly ridiculous."

Yukon Employees Union president Steve Geick says hospitals are facing huge staffing issues. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

In an email to CBC News, Chris Huestis, a spokesperson for the Yukon Hospitals Corporation, said the corporation won't comment on personnel changes. But he said the union's claim of four resignations in a 12-hour period is not accurate.

In fact, the corporation hired 15 new employees within nursing at the Whitehorse hospital last month, he wrote. 

The union however, claims job vacancies have "skyrocketed." There are at least 42 vacant positions across Yukon's three hospitals facilities, the union's statement said, with at least 23 unfilled nursing positions.

The system is "on the verge of collapse," said the release.

Geick said he's worried about what would happen if Yukon has a COVID-19 outbreak.

He said employees are leaving from different departments, not just nursing, at all three Yukon hospitals and that people are resigning for different reasons, including health and safety issues and a high workload.

Yukon Hospital Corporation responds

However, the hospital corporation said the union's numbers only tell part of the story. Huestis said they don't reflect the complexities of recruiting within the hospital or the broader healthcare sector, and don't reflect "any understanding of staffing during a pandemic."

"We acknowledge the challenge created by the pandemic on all of us and especially those who work within our hospitals and broader health system. We are also managing a higher rate of absences due to illness as our team is being extra cautious when they feel unwell and as we head into cold and flu season," he wrote.

"We currently have a slightly higher than normal number of postings due primarily to the fact that we've added new positions in response to growing demand for hospital services and COVID[-19] response.

The corporation said there are currently 10 full-time equivalent vacancies in nursing at the Whitehorse General Hospital, two at the Watson Lake Community Hospital and one at the Dawson City Community Hospital.

"To be clear, vacancy does not mean shifts go unfilled," Huestis wrote.

"There is no doubt that we experience recruitment challenges — but we are not alone ... The fact is that health providers across the country experience the exact same challenges. COVID-19 only adds to the complexity."

Nurses from elsewhere pose 'grave risk,' union says

The union also raised alarm about potential COVID-19 risks from hospitals relying on nurses flown in from other higher-risk regions.

"Without any requirements to quarantine before entering our wards, these nurses pose a grave risk to the health of Yukoners and vulnerable front-line workers," said a statement from the union.

The hospital corporation defended its approach, saying it does a staffing and risk assessment before placing any workers who have traveled from outside the territory.

Health Minister Pauline Frost said adequately staffing Yukon's healthcare facilities is a longstanding problem.

On Monday, Frost said she was unaware of the recent resignations, but said she will discuss the matter with management of the Yukon Hospital Corporation.

With files from Chris Windeyer

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