This is the speech I gave at the International Day of Mourning in Victoria, BC on Friday, April 26, 2019. It was very well received.
Good morning. My name is Charlotte Millington and I am the Regional Vice President for South Vancouver Island for the Hospital Employees’ Union. Being in the business of regional healthcare is an enormous responsibility. The Hospital Employees’ Union is the mother hen for all of the thousands of healthcare jobs that are not “doctor” and “nurse.”
Every time you enter a healthcare facility, you pass through the hands of our members, though you won’t always see it. We are the clerks who admit you to the hospital, the laundry workers who provide the clean linens that make up your beds, the technology department who make sure your healthcare file can be read by your medical team.
What you may not know is that our jobs can be dangerous. Aggressive attacks from patients is so normal for Care Aides, warnings of violence are baked into the job description. Our healthcare workers are the victims of accidents, violent assaults, and other tragedies. All of these things take their toll and the “fears,” few admit to have, result in workers vulnerable to depression, anxiety and, occasionally, suicide.
All of these things take their toll and the “fears,” few admit to have, result in workers vulnerable to depression, anxiety and, occasionally, suicide.
Healthcare workers spend long hours, working overtime when we are short-staffed, putting our lives on the line in return for the promise of benefits and a pension – assuming our collective agreement includes either of these – because not all do. We do it so that we can make it to retirement. We do it because we are proud to contribute so greatly to the well-being of our communities.
In our current economy and North American political climate, not many of our hospital retirees are playing golf and going on cruises. We have accepted that we will not be snow birds in Palm Springs. This is now the dream of every worker: we will work hard and one day our hard work will pay off. We will meet our friends at Tim Horton’s at strangely early hours. We will have time for a small, well-groomed, yappy dog. We will kiss the fat little cheeks of our grandchildren and, if we are truly blessed, maybe even the fat little cheeks of our great grandchildren.
But not everyone makes it to this dream. For too many workers across the province, getting up in the morning is a countdown to the last time they will ever lace up their shoes. They do not know that on one unlucky day, an HEU member will take those shoes, sometimes still warm, and place them into the white plastic hospital bag that will later be handed to their family. This is something else that makes up our hospital jobs as well: We see the results of every accident and every fatality in the province. Injured or dead, every victim will be touched by the hands of an HEU member.
Statistics tell us that 131 workers were killed on the job last year. For HEU members, that means we used a sharpie to write 131 names on one of those white plastic bags with the hard plastic handles that weren’t designed for any human hand to hold comfortably. We do not have the privilege of hiding behind an anonymous statistic. We saw each worker who died as a result of going to work. We had to learn their names.
We see the families who are trying to make sense of what they just learned in our waiting rooms: That they will never hear the familiar sound of their mom in the morning again. That they will never get another of those scratchy hugs from their brother. That someone’s son has gone, just as he stepped into manhood, taking with him any hopes of grandchildren. In an instant, an entire branch of the family tree is erased. And the family, sitting on those rows of benches that make our hospitals look a little like an airport, is left clutching that white plastic bag, the luggage unclaimed by our passenger.
The family does not know that this is not the first white plastic bag our worker has had to pass to a mother who has not yet begun to grieve. The family does not know that behind the husband, who has been reduced to a bag of carefully-folded possessions and a wallet that is shaped like the pocket where he carried it, is a team of healthcare workers who have rushed someone’s dying colleague from team to team in an attempt to save them. Sometimes we have watched someone we care for come to the end of a good life. We aren’t just healthcare workers. We live here, too.
We aren’t just healthcare workers. We live here, too.
Work is supposed to be a chance for a good life. A better life. A chance to have a laugh with your coworkers. And eventually, something you put behind you while you shift your focus to your yappy little dog and the fat little cheeks of your grandchildren. Instead for some, work will rob them of their dreams. It will cripple their family with grief. There will be no dog. No grandchildren. Just their name – correctly spelled – in black sharpie.
We cannot continue to accept that some jobs are simply dangerous. That working short and pulling doubles is acceptable as long as deadlines are met, contractual obligations fulfilled, and quotas achieved. We cannot continue to allow workers to be put in harm’s way. It is time for this to end.
It is time to say that every white plastic bag that is sent home to take the place of someone’s mother, father, uncle, child, is one too many.