Saskatoon

Major unions call on Sask. government to restrict gatherings, travel

Union leaders representing tens of thousands of Saskatchewan's frontline workers held a virtual news conference on Thursday calling on the provincial government to limit gathering sizes and restrict travel.

Premier promised earlier this week government would not impose restrictions

Volunteer Montana Ledoux puts on PPE at the Saskatoon Tribal Council-run vaccination clinic inside SaskTel centre in Saskatoon, Sask., on April 15, 2021. (Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press)

Union leaders representing tens of thousands of front-line workers want Saskatchewan's government to limit gathering sizes and restrict travel to stem the province's rising tide of COVID-19 cases. 

"There are concrete ways for us to really slow, if not stop, the spread of this Omicron variant and I think if we have those tools at our access, then we should be using it," said Barbara Cape, president of Service Employees International Union West (SEIU-West), one of six unions that made the joint call to action in a virtual news conference on Thursday.

Cape's union represents workers in schools, health care and other industries. 

"I think if the premier and government of Saskatchewan choose not to implement stronger public health orders, they're going to see that this has become a political football as opposed to a public health crisis," she said. 

Leaders of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL), the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union also participated in the call. 

Together they represent 113,000 workers. They called for the province to limit gathering sizes to 10 people, limit the frequency of gatherings, limit non-school and non-work contacts, and restrict non-essential travel. The unions said slowing the spread of Omicron will help front-line workers sustain services.

Union leaders representing Saskatchewan's frontline workers held a virtual news conference on Thursday, calling on the province to limit gathering sizes and restrict non-essential travel. (Screenshot of Virtual Conference)

Premier Scott Moe has repeatedly said restrictions have no benefit.

"We see no clear evidence that lockdown measures have reduced hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths in other provinces and as a result, there is no reason to impose harmful new restrictions in Saskatchewan," he said in a statement Thursday. 

He said Saskatchewan's current hospitalizations, ICU admissions and COVID-19 related deaths are "currently well below the national average and well below other provinces that have introduced severe restrictions."

Several doctors have criticized and countered Moe's claims.

Test positivity and hospitalization numbers are climbing steadily in Saskatchewan. The province on Thursday said its total number of people in hospital with COVID-19 stood at 215, with 23 in intensive care. No additional deaths were reported though there were an additional 1,158 lab-confirmed cases.

The union reps said Thursday that simply slowing down the virus would benefit people.

Other sectors including restaurants and hospitality have spoken out against restrictions. 

Systems strained

SFL president Lori Johb said union members across the province are operating in "crisis mode" as resources dwindle while demand on their services grows. Johb warned that continued, uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus will lead to service disruptions. 

Tracy Zambory, president of Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, said health care is already being compromised as rural facilities are closed and emergency rooms are filled "to the rafters." 

"Morale is low. They cannot continue on," she said. 

"We have neither the space nor the staff to continue at this pace."

The union leaders said all public sector workplaces were understaffed before the pandemic, and that employees are now more challenged as they try to navigate pandemic-driven illness, family care, colleagues' resignations and burnout.

Some SEIU West members "are working 16 to 20 hours in a day, sleeping for a couple of hours and coming back to do it all over again," said Cape.

"When you look at their ability to provide bedside care or to manage the cleanliness or the dietary needs or the provision of medications to residents — mistakes are going to be made."

She said there is often no staff available to be called in for help. 

Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said earlier this week that the province's Omicron wave is lagging behind other provinces. He expects the variant will peak about two weeks from now in Regina and Saskatoon, and that a surge of hospitalizations will follow a few weeks later. 

Premier Scott Moe has said his government will not bring in new restrictions in response to Omicron. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

With files from Adam Hunter

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