Thursday, April 17, 2008

How a committed hospital worker's dreams unravelled

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 16, 2008


VICTORIA

Amy Hughes has endured her share of tribulation in her 58 years.

An immigrant from a warm country to a cold one, she learned a new language, got married, gave birth to two daughters, got divorced. She found a job and came to love her work.

She worried about her elder daughter, who was mentally handicapped. Like so many in her position, she wondered, why me? Why this added burden? Her faith was challenged. In time, she learned to cope and to accept and to rejoice.

“I say thank God for the gift you give me,” she said, her native Malta still heavy on the tongue. “I've learned a lot from her. How to love unconditionally. How to be patient.”

The family lived in a New Westminster apartment across the street from Royal Columbian Hospital, where Ms. Hughes worked for “27 blessed years.”

Blessed?

“Because I really enjoyed working there. I put a roof over my children. I put food on their plates. And clothed them. Everybody was happy.”

Six years ago, the dream began to unravel.

Premier Gordon Campbell introduced legislation voiding union contracts. In doing so, he acknowledged breaking an election promise.

The new Liberal government considered the contracts to be sweetheart deals between unions and their buddies in the old NDP government. “I'm not in the laundry business, I'm not in the food services business,” the health services minister said.

Amy Hughes was in the laundry business. And the food services business. And the housekeeping business. And the making chit-chat with elderly patients business.

The politicians said Bill 29 would turn the jobs of 50,000 public sector workers over to the private sector, or they would be eliminated.

Ms. Hughes's family had come to Canada in 1963, a year before the island nation of Malta became independent. Amelia, her birth name, was the third of seven children of a baker and a housekeeper. She was born in Marsa, a shipping centre from the time of the Phoenicians and whose name is Arabic for port. They abandoned her ancient birthplace for a new beginning in Winnipeg. In January. “My mother sent us to church in spring clothes and sandals. I froze.”

Marriage brought her to the West Coast, where she got a job paying $1.49 an hour at St. Paul's Hospital.

She stayed home when she had her daughters, but eventually re-entered the work force. At Royal Columbian, she worked in the cafeteria and as a housekeeper.

“You go into the patients' rooms, you clean, you dust, you wash the floor. You communicate with them, especially the elderly. Oh, and you clean the bathroom. It's hard work.”

Once, she caught scabies from a patient. The threat of transmission was an occupational hazard.

“I loved the patients, the nurses, the staff. It was my second home. The money I was making made me comfortable.”

Her salary was “$18-something” an hour. Then, it dropped to “$16-something.”

Morale at the hospital plummeted. The workers, many of them single mothers, wondered about paying bills. “I'd never seen my co-workers so devastated, so depressed.” She remembers crying with nurses on the psych ward, thinking, “How appropriate.”

Government politicians spoke about priorities and saving money.

Pundits dismissed the workers as overpaid broom pushers and toilet cleaners. A newspaper columnist harrumphed about the high salary being paid cleaners who were members of the Hospital Employees' Union, to which Ms. Hughes belonged. There were protests and walkouts and an unfavourable court decision.

Then, one day, “they gave us the pink slip.”

She had thrown herself into the union-led protest and had not allowed herself to think about losing her job. She faced a harsh reality. She would not be retiring at age 65 with a full pension. At age 54, she decided to find temporary work before settling on early retirement.

“In those nine months, I broke – emotionally, financially, psychologically,” she said. She was prescribed antidepressants. Others fared worse. She knows of two suicides. A counsellor had her express her rage in a letter to the Premier.

“I called him every name in the book,” she said. When she was done, she folded it up and put it away. “I wouldn't show that letter to anybody. It was awful.”

She moved in with her married daughter in Langley.

Her pension is $1,058 a month. She soon will move to a low-income apartment for seniors in Port Moody.

On weekends, she goes shopping with her elder daughter, who will turn 40 this year. Sometimes, they go to Science World.

Otherwise, she reads novels, does needlepoint, babysits her grandchildren.

Last summer, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down key portions of Bill 29 as unconstitutional.

Ms. Hughes cried when she heard. “All the fighting we did, it was worth it.”

After negotiations with the unions, the provincial government promised earlier this year to provide $85-million in compensation and retraining.

On Monday, the government introduced the Health Statutes Amendment Act to alter the sections the Supreme Court had found in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Yesterday, Ms. Hughes, who lost her job and her apartment and the co-workers she regarded as a second family, filled out forms to begin the process of seeking compensation.

And she wonders how the Premier sleeps at night.

“He came in and pulled the rug right from under my feet,” she said.

The politicians likely have never heard of Amy Hughes. She knows them only too well.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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