2021 USW Cares District 6 Jefferson Award Winner, Local Union 9329

USW Local Union 9329 represents the service workers and registered nurses of a long-term care home in a rural area of Ontario. President of the local for the last three years, Lisa Cook, nominated her local’s health care units for the 2021 Jefferson Awards because of the incredible compassion and strength the members showed during two serious Covid-19 outbreaks at the CV Homes facility they work at. Because of the sacrifices these members made in order to save lives, stop the spread, and support lonely residents isolated from the world, Local Union 9329 is District 6’s 2021 USW Cares Jefferson Award winner.

The care home Local 9329 members work at was the first facility in the region to have a Covid outbreak. “It was a scary time because it affected lots of families: people’s spouses and kids lost their jobs and were sent home from their work; some of our members were down to one income and everybody still stepped up,” said Cook.

Because members working at the care home are constantly exposed to the virus and risked spreading it, the family members they lived with were let go and weren’t allowed to go to work. In order to keep their families safe and allow for their partners to continue working, some members moved in together and shared accommodations.

For two months several members, some of who were moms of young children, were only able to contact their families digitally. One of these sisters, who left her home so her partner could work, has four children under the age of twelve, another has two kids under the age of seven, and another has two kids that are twelve and ten.

“We didn’t have any option. Even my own two children, they were both sent home from their jobs the day it was announced that the nursing home had an outbreak, so they immediately became unemployed,” said Cook.

“Family and friends didn’t want to be around us, because we were right in the middle of it and there were so many unknowns when it first came out. Obviously we’ve learned a lot since then, but nobody knew if it was safe to leave our work and go to the grocery store in scrubs.

“People in scrubs were frowned upon almost. We were heroes because we were doing it, but to go out in the community with your scrubs on, people were fearful of you because they didn’t know if you were spreading the virus.”

The nursing home lost a quarter of their resident population to Covid, and twenty-nine out of 110 staff tested positive for the virus. One staff member was hospitalized and put on a ventilator. Most of the staff members who tested positive still have long-term effects, like heart palpitations and trouble breathing, to this day.

During the outbreaks it was all-hands-on-deck for these members. It didn’t matter which department someone worked in, everybody helped everywhere. Staff who worked in Dietary would help with lifts or changing residents, because so many people were off sick.

“We were a team. We came together to provide the best care we possibly could with so many staff off. Nurses worked sixteen hour shifts fourteen days in a row. People came in whenever they could to help and wore full-gown PPE to try to protect themselves,” explained Cook.

 

The outbreaks were incredibly hard on staff and residents. The residents were isolated to their rooms for a long period of time; they weren’t allowed to have outside visitors, including family, so the only interaction they had was with the staff.

“We were the people who kept them company; we were their connection to the outside world,” said Cook.

Members used their personal devices to connect residents with their families so the families could see that their loved ones were still alive. They used their breaks and lunches to keep residents company, FaceTime residents’ families, and sometimes to be with residents while they were passing. Many residents passed away without family by their side, and the members of Local 9329 were the ones who were their holding their hands when they passed away.

“They’re our family. We spend more time with the residents than we do at our homes, so we care for these people like our own grandmas and grandpas or moms and dads,” said Cook. “We feel like a family. We’re a rural home in a small community, we knew we had to do it.”

Before Covid, when a resident would pass away at the care home, the funeral home would come to take away the deceased, the deceased would be covered with a special blanket, and when they left the home the staff would do an honor guard to send them off with dignity and respect.

During Covid the funeral homes didn’t come in. “The nurses had to literally put people that we cared for every single day into body bags and wheel them to the door. The body bags would be sanitized by us and then pushed outside to the people from the funeral home who were in PPE. Usually, they’d wear a suit, but they had to wear coveralls that could be washed because of contamination. It wasn’t dignity and respect. You didn’t feel like they were leaving with dignity and respect,” said Cook.

“And it was hard. Those are people that we cared for and we love the residents, we really do. And now you’re the person putting them in a body bag. It’s devasting, mentally. Mentally it’s hard on everyone.”

Cook’s own mother passed away in long-term care during the Pandemic, and Cook said it was because none of her family was able to visit her and she gave up: “She stopped eating and drinking because she thought we stopped caring because nobody was visiting her. It’s a reality of the Pandemic,” said Cook.

The members felt isolated too. If they weren’t too exhausted from working long shifts, nobody wanted to be around them because they were so afraid.

But the community outpouring of support for the care home staff was incredible. Community members would drop off food and gifts bags for the staff. One person dropped off hand-knitted hearts for the staff to put in the hands of residents who were passing so they knew they were being thought of with love as they were passing. Staff would then decontaminate the knitted hearts and were able to give them to the deceased’s family.

The Local Union, which is amalgamated, donated money to do moral builders, like bringing in snacks and getting the staff t-shirts. They did weekly giveaways, raffles, and creative favors for their healthcare workers in the care home; the other units of the local are not health care units.

The Local also paid to have a memorial tree planted at the entry of the care home. The tree is a flowering Tulip Tree; every spring, it will flower and then the flowers will fall to the ground to remind the staff of the residents they lost to Covid since they lost most of their residents in the Spring of 2020.

Local 9329 has won the 2021 District 6 USW Cares Jefferson Award because of the incredible sacrifices these members made to support each other and patients living in long-term care through the Pandemic. They are representative of all USW healthcare workers who have gone above and beyond for their jobs and their patients while working short-staffed in unsafe conditions through a world-wide crisis.

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