IH’s plan to wash its hands of laundry service decried

HEU rally

Privatizing hospital laundry services in the Okanagan would destroy well-paying jobs and make it impossible to get them back, a rally in Kelowna heard Thursday.

A hundred supporters of the unionized laundry workers marched to MLA Steve Thomson’s office Thursday to protest Interior Health’s proposal to replace 175 union jobs in the Southern Interior with lower-paying jobs in the Lower Mainland and Alberta.

“The IHA says it can’t afford to invest $10 million over 10 to 15 years to maintain and replace laundry equipment at 11 hospitals. I say they can’t afford not to make those investments,” said Jennifer Whiteside, secretary-business manager for the province’s Hospital Employees’ Union.

IH officials say the authority must pay an extra $10.5 million to upgrade outdated machines and infrastructure over the next 10 years. They’ve said unless they can be convinced otherwise, the current staff will be laid off in 2016.

The washing machines are competing for tax dollars with diagnostic tools like CT scans and other medical equipment, said Alan Davies, regional director of support services for IH. Clean linen is important to patient care, he said, but medical equipment can be impossible to source elsewhere.

“We’re struggling to find money for important medical equipment. . . . If a patient arrives at the Emergency department, the piece of equipment (there) is likely to have the biggest impact on that patient. You can source the linen elsewhere.”

Still, the health authority is listening to complaints from the union and municipal leaders. It issued a request for solutions to find out from private vendors how much it would cost to deliver the laundry service. Officials aren’t saying how many bids they’ve received but promise to decide whether to privatize after a thorough review by early September, Davies said.

If they do, the winning contractor must provide the service for at least 10 years. The company may be based in the Lower Mainland or Alberta, but it could build its own laundry facilities in the Interior to reduce transportation costs and the risk of trucking linen over treacherous mountain passes, Davies said.

The 175 jobs held mostly by women would still be lost, said Whiteside. The public investment in laundry equipment would be squandered and the service would become less efficient.

“These are good, decent jobs that provide living wages for local families,” she said. “Once (they’re) gone, it will be next to impossible to get those services back in our hospitals where they belong.”

The union says two corporations run the laundry business in the Lower Mainland and costs have soared by 170 per cent in seven years. Those corporations have expanded their services and added sites, which may explain the larger budget, said Davies.

Even so, health authorities are not being transparent about their finances, said Whiteside.

“The public does not get the information they need to determine whether we’re getting good value for money. I say 170 per cent is too much over seven years.”

Many of the washing machines have sufficient life to last several more years, while other equipment has exceeded its lifespan and could conk out any day, Davies said. The union argues investing in an in-house laundry service is more efficient over the long term.

“(If) you contract it out to a private corporation, it will completely undermine your own capacity to do it yourself again in the future and you lose all those good jobs,” said HEU spokesman Mike Old. “That’s not a good deal for the Interior.”


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