A deal to protect unionized workers is being heralded as a “significant step” in getting a new 125-bed long-term care facility for the Sunshine Coast.
The facility will be owned and operated by Trellis Seniors Services, under contract to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH).
The news comes one year after Health Minister Adrian Dix announced an agreement was close for Trellis, operating as Silverstone Care Centre Limited Partnership, to build on shíshálh Nation lands and have the facility open in late 2019.
The project was put on hold, however, while VCH worked with unions on “a staffing model” that would protect workers.
The health authority announced Feb. 14 that those negotiations have now yielded agreements between VCH, the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU), the BC Nurses’ Union, the Ministry of Health, the Health Employers Association of BC (HABC) and Trellis.
“Having Trellis join HABC changes the rates the employees will be going in at, which then changes the per diem that we pay Trellis,” Karin Olson, VCH chief operating officer for Coastal, said. “So, there’s an increased cost to VCH, but it’s the right thing to do for our employees.”
Olson couldn’t give an estimate of the increased per diem, but said it would be “significantly more.”
The agreements cover approximately 80 care aides, licensed practical nurses, activity workers, therapy aides and registered nurses and will “ensure care staff who currently work at Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge will be guaranteed the same wages, benefits, pension and seniority when they transfer to the new care home.”
According to VCH, contract food and housekeeping support staff will also be offered comparable jobs with no loss of wages or benefits.
Minister Dix said he’s pleased the negotiations were successful. “We listened to the concerns about the importance of these jobs for health care workers in the region and have been able to retain the union status, wages and benefits,” he said.
Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons, who was vocal in opposition to the Trellis-VCH deal when it was first announced in 2016, called the agreements “very good news.”
“The principles we all fought for have been protected,” Simons said. “This not only supports health care workers but will also provide benefits for the seniors who will call this space home."
HEU secretary-business manager Jennifer Whiteside said, “We’re establishing a solid foundation for high quality care by recognizing the service of local health care workers and by continuing to provide them with working and caring conditions at the provincial standard.”
This week’s announcement also confirms VCH’s approval of the proposed site on shíshálh Nation land.
The shíshálh site is the third put forward since 2016.
The original agreement called for the facility to be built on Derby Road in Sechelt, then, faced with delays in getting the needed approvals, Trellis proposed a site in Gibsons.
“This has been a long process and I’m happy to see this project move ahead,” said Chief Warren Paull, who told Coast Reporter late last year that an earlier letter of intent with Trellis had expired and that a lease had yet to be signed.
Olson said Trellis and the shíshálh Nation will now be able to finalize the lease details. Once that’s done and building permits are secured, it will take 18 to 24 months to have the facility up and running.
The Trellis-VCH proposal has faced organized community opposition, but there have also been ongoing calls from local physicians to get a long-term care facility built as quickly as possible to relieve pressure on Sechelt Hospital, where doctors have said as many as 40 per cent of the acute care beds are occupied by patients awaiting placement in long-term care.
VCH has 12 new “transition” beds ready to go, and Olson said they hope to open those beds soon but need to recruit staff.
“We are short of care aides and community health workers right now on the Sunshine Coast – quite significantly short. We’re looking at strategies as to how we can improve our recruitment,” she said.
Completion of the VCH-Trellis project will also mean the closure of the existing facilities at Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge.
Earlier this year, VCH said it had “preliminary plans” to spend $20 million to convert Shorncliffe to a specialized dementia care facility, with 25 beds as well as four hospice beds, six respite beds, an adult day program and support spaces.
Totem Lodge, which is beside Sechelt Hospital, could become the new home for mental health inpatient and outpatient services.
Olson said community engagement on those ideas should start in the next few months.
She also said VCH has been pleased with its relationship with Trellis on facilities currently under construction in North Vancouver and Richmond.
“We see Trellis as a good partner going forward and I think that they will be a good community partner in Sechelt as well.”
Trellis president Mary McDougall said her company understands the urgent need for a new facility. “I’m happy to see the teamwork that has formed with reaching this agreement and to be moving forward together,” she said.