Nova Scotia

Union says employer putting telehealth workers at risk during COVID surge

The union that represents 811 telehealth workers in Nova Scotia says the company that runs the system is putting members at risk by refusing to let them work remotely during the current COVID-19 outbreak.

Employees can't work remotely despite at least 4 testing positive at Burnside facility

Nova Scotians have been encouraged to work from home where possible in recent weeks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as case numbers continue to rise. (Shutterstock/chainarong06)

The union that represents telehealth workers staffing the 811 system in Nova Scotia says the company that runs it is putting members at risk by refusing to let them work remotely during the current COVID-19 outbreak.

"We have a lot of Nova Scotians and others who rely on the telehealth system and we cannot have a breakdown in the system," said Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

"I think it's prudent on the employer to act quickly and supply these members with the proper equipment that they need to be able to do the work from home."

Nova Scotians have been encouraged to work from home where possible in recent weeks to help prevent the spread of the virus as case numbers continue to rise.

MacLean said Emergency Medical Care Inc., which operates the 811 call centre in Burnside, has ignored that message.

"We need everybody to stay home who can work from home," he said. "This is a pandemic.

"We're getting the most numbers that we've ever received … so every person that is going to work and interacting with others is being put at risk of contracting COVID-19."

As of Saturday, at least nine people at the call centre have tested positive.

Jason MacLean, the president of Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said he has repeatedly contacted Emergency Medical Care Inc. about why it refuses to allow telehealth employees to work from home. (CBC)

That has forced more than half of the centre's 30 workers into isolation while they await tests or results.

"You have people that are ready, willing and able that are self-isolated at home that could help the strain that's already on the system," MacLean said. 

"But they're not being allowed to because their employer will not let them work from home at all."

To reduce the strain on the system, MacLean said people from the phone vaccination booking service have been moved to 811.

He said this will only make matters worse.

"They're taking people from the vaccine booking area and bringing them down to the telehealth area, which will cross-contaminate and quite possibly make other people sick," he said.

"We know that it could be up to 14 days before COVID rears its ugly head and what they're doing is putting people at risk. Not only that, it [also] puts a strain on the vaccine system."

Remote work is possible

MacLean said he has repeatedly contacted EMCI about why it refuses to allow telehealth employees to work from home, despite civil servants and 811 volunteers doing so last spring when the pandemic began.

"This has been done before and it can be done again," he said. 

"What they're doing is putting people's health at risk and they shouldn't be doing that, especially with a valuable service that [telehealth employees] provide Nova Scotians."

MacLean said he has also called on the Nova Scotia government to enforce a work-from-home order for every provincial employee who is able to work remotely.

Any questions regarding workplace environment or policies around working from home should be directed to the employer, Emergency Medical Care Inc.

Government says it is aware

Marla MacInnis, a government spokesperson, said the province is "aware of the situation at the 811 call centre and are working with public health on next steps."

"Beginning yesterday evening, EHS staff trained on testing were deployed to the call centre to test all staff at that location using standard PCR tests.

"Anyone that Public Health has identified as a close contact or anyone that is experiencing symptoms will be required to set up a testing appointment at a PAC. There has been no impact on the delivery of services for Nova Scotians at this time."

CBC News contacted East Coast Medical for comment but has not yet received a response.

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