Montreal speech therapists, social workers threatened with firing if they refuse to work in seniors’ homes

Ruth’s day job mostly involves helping children stop stuttering, but as of this week, her career took a sharp right turn — she is one of hundreds of health-care workers being forced to work in the province’s long-term care homes.

This week, staff with the West-Central Montreal regional health authority, including physiotherapists, social workers, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists, were told they were being redeployed to long-term care homes.

The province of Quebec is trying to mitigate a crisis unfolding inside the homes, known by the French-language acronym “CHSLD.” It issued an edict saying public health-care workers may be dispatched to the residences to help with a pervasive lack of staffing.

Some 80 per cent of the deaths in Quebec are linked to the seniors’ homes, which have been hit particularly hard in the Montreal area.

CBC News spoke with two employees in this position, but is withholding their identities because they fear professional repercussions for going public.

“Ruth” and “Alexis” are Montreal-area health professionals that give therapy for people with physical impairments. Neither are medically trained.

No guarantee of adequate PPE

Both women said they received a two-hour training session before they were supposed to be dispatched to a CHSLD. That’s woefully inadequate, they said: staff were going into a totally new environment — many, if not the majority, have not worked in geriatric care.

They were told they’d be working as assistants to patient attendants, known in Quebec as PABs.

In addition, they were told they’d only be given cloth masks — and in some cases, surgical gowns — despite being asked to work inside homes with COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Everyone was so shocked,” Alexis said.

“The hands flew up. Do we take the gown off when we’re going from a COVID-19 patient to a non-COVID-19 patient? But the [instructor] was like, as long as you’re not going too near them, you shouldn’t have to change your gown.”

In a statement, the West-Central Montreal regional health authority (known by its French-language acronym, CIUSSS), defended its training, saying it’s both theoretical and practical. It said that all “necessary” PPE will be made available for staff.

If there was adequate protective equipment, Alexis said she would feel comfortable in the new role — but she left the training feeling unprotected and unready to go into a long-term care home.

Ruth and Alexis both said they were shown how to put on a mask during the training, but weren’t given masks to practise.

Ruth said the masks they were shown were not the same type of masks that were available at the long-term care facility where she is now working.

In its statement, the West-Central Montreal regional health authority said that the training to put on a mask is universal to all types of face masks.

Risk of getting fired

Ruth and Alexis said employees were not given a say in their assignment — and that many are being sent to the worst-hit CHSLDs in Quebec. Others are being forced to travel far from their homes and work overnight shifts.

An email sent to some employees of the West-Central Montreal regional health authority said “a list of employees designated for deployment has been created … this is a majority of staff.”

“[The instructor] even said in the training, if you refuse to go, you’ll be fired. She said it very nonchalantly,” said Alexis.

Ruth was also told that if she refused to work, her contract could be terminated.  

“It didn’t even seem like an option. It is what it is. There was no discussion,” she said.

Redeployment ‘not optional’

In its statement, the West-Central Montreal regional health authority said “we are aware that redeployment of staff can cause stress and anxiety. We are doing our best to support our colleagues working in Long Term Care sites.”

It goes on to say that the redeployment is not optional, and that it was decided by a ministerial decree due to the present health crisis.

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