Yukon Employees’ Union has been raising concerns about working conditions for Residential Care Workers (RCWs) in the Yukon Government group homes since at least 2015. These workers face numerous risks in the normal course of their duties, and are regularly expected to work alone. They provide a home environment for youth and young children, often with extraordinary emotional needs who can, at times, become aggressive or violent. The workers must deal with a wide range of emergency situations that can involve medical needs or missing children. Occasionally, staff must handle several challenging or emergency situations at the same time.
When a RCW is on duty as the sole adult caregiver in a home with unpredictable youth, they are assured that support is only a phone call away. Of course, the response time for urgent support depends on how far away other available staff members might be. Relying on on-call support does not sufficiently protect our members or residents in the group homes.
At a September press conference about youth in care, Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost and Deputy Minister Stephen Samis assured the press that no workers in youth care facilities would ever work alone. That proved not to be the case, and the practice continued unchanged throughout the fall and winter.
Finally, after years of union advocacy and intervention, the Public Service Commissioner has ruled in favour of worker safety and against solo staffing.
On January 24, 2018 YEU filed a policy grievance asserting that the Yukon Government was “not making all reasonable provisions for the safety and health of employees in Transitional Support Services (TSS), in violation of Article 32.01.” Some progress was made toward resolving this grievance informally, but ultimately we could not agree. The employer’s practice of frequently deciding not to backfill vacancies, resulting in single staffed homes continued, and was unsafe in the view of the union.
We brought the grievance to a hearing with the Public Service Commissioner on November 8, 2018 to argue our case, and received a decision on December 10, 2018. The decision reads, in part, “… on balance I am persuaded that the better interpretation of Article 32.01 is that the requirement to make all provisions for the occupational safety and health of employees requires TSS to backfill vacant RCW shifts, if there is staff available for this purpose (regardless of whether it results in overtime), in circumstances where not backfilling would mean that a RCW is working alone in a group home.”
Residential Care Workers no longer need to worry that they might end up working a shift alone. This is a significant promise of greater protection of psychological well-being and physical safety in the workplace, and a real positive gain by the union on behalf of these workers and residents.