Temp solutions in health care fall short

Using agencies to cover staff shortages comes at a cost - From the Fall 2023 Guardian
Care aide reading a chart

As chronic short-staffing plagues B.C.’s health care system, more employers are relying on private temporary work agencies to fill vacancies.

Although acute care hospitals are using agencies to fill nursing, care aide and allied health positions, the problem is compounded in private and non-profit long-term care.

Lower compensation, heavy workloads, and lack of management support have left operators like the Good Samaritan Society (GSS) desperate for workers, and increasingly relying on temporary agencies.

“We lose staff to the public facilities because they have better benefits,” says a long-time HEU care aide at Heron Grove in Vernon, who asked to remain anonymous due to current tensions in bargaining. 

Despite the BC NDP government’s wage top-up program, she explains, workers in many private facilities are still falling short on benefits and wage-related shift differentials.

At Heron Grove, she says, many agency workers insist on straight day shifts. This means a surplus of staff on weekdays, and a shortage on evenings, nights and weekends – leaving HEU members with less desirable schedules and heavier workloads.

“Union members who are working days try to take some of the load off the later shift by taking on extra duties, like giving a resident their bath early,” she added. 

Raymond Ying, an HEU private sector servicing representative, sees similar conditions across the sector. 

“Employees are tired and burned out,” he said, adding that employers are paying agencies significant money for temporary staff, including travel and accommodation.

The Heron Grove care aide and Ying agree that quality of care is the biggest casualty. 

“Agency staff don’t have buy-in,” says the care aide. “It’s temporary for them. Residents see a different face every day. Issues don’t get addressed.”

In January 2023, Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops had about 260 agency workers, including 78 care aides. 

Today, that number is lower, but “our site has agency care aides working all shifts including overtime,” says HEU care aide Sharon Williams. “We need care aides who can do the job, but there’s no consistency in orientation.”

Williams says some HEU casuals are picking up extra shifts in other regions through the agencies.

“I work well with them, but it’s causing a lot of division, to be honest,” says Williams. “Regular staff are getting redeployed to other units in our hospital because the agency care aides won’t move to other areas. It’s causing a lot of friction, and impacts continuity of care.”

But there could be a provincial public solution found in a recent initiative of Fraser Health. The Relief Care initiative deploys care aides, LPNs and RNs across the region to address urgent needs, including staffing shortages, in both private and publicly funded long-term care.

“The team of about 60 care aides was vital in supporting seniors during the heat dome  and COVID-19 outbreaks,” says HEU secretary-business manager Meena Brisard.

“The government could explore this approach with all health employers to put more resources into protecting patient care and public services, and minimize the negative impact on patients and residents,” she said.