THA Secretary of Health, Wellness and Family Development Tracy Davidson-Celestine has defended the issue of contract nurses being on the job for more than one year without benefits like paid sick, vacation and maternity leave, unlike their permanent counterparts. Initially, these nurses were hired by the Tobago Regional Health Authority (TRHA) for a short-term period to serve during the pandemic, as additional staff was needed.
Last Thursday, the issue was raised by electoral representative for Parlatuvier/ L’Anse Fourmi/ Speyside Farley Augustine, who reported to members of the media that the matter was brought to his attention by the nurses. Augustine said, “They were told that they would be hired for a probationary period. They’ll be on probation for about six months and during that six months they weren’t entitled to paid sick leave; they weren’t entitled to the benefits that regular workers would have.”
He said it has now been more than a year and their employment terms have not changed.
Newsday spoke with two of these nurses who confirmed the situation.
“It really is unfair, but at the same time very unfortunate. We work alongside all the other nurses, we carry out the same functions. Yes, we’re expected to report for duty everyday but at the end of all of that we are not treated in the same way – it is really unfair.”
Davidson-Celestine said the status of the contract nurses remains the same for the time being as the TRHA is not hiring.
“When we were just about organising to treat with the pandemic, we had to immediately bring on on a short-term arrangement (for) additional staff – let me say, at the TRHA there is really no vacancy and so those persons who were hired were hired specifically to treat with the situation that we’re currently in and that is a very fluid one.
She said when the nurses were engaged it was on this specific project for a six-month period with hopes that the pandemic would have ended sooner.
“The situation is still that we are in the heart of covid19, those staff are still required to help us to manage and to mitigate the spread of covid19 – they were hired specifically to treat with the management of covid19, perhaps until vacancies opened up within the TRHA where they can then be interviewed and selected to fill those vacancies.
"But those members of staff, I must emphasise, are intended to be short term...So, they would not enjoy the same kinds of benefits as those who are engaged in the TRHA on a more longer-term arrangement, because there are no vacancies.”
Contacted on the issue, TT Registered Nursing Association president Idi Stuart said he was aware of the situation.
“We as a country are relying on these nursing personnel to treat our covid19-positive patients in Tobago – this is unacceptable to the association, this is something we would have brought up with the Secretary of Health in Tobago, we would have brought it up with Westly Orr, the CEO of the TRHA in Tobago."
Stuart said he had conversations with stakeholders prior to the August 2020 general election and assurances were given to treat with the issue.
"So I don’t know if the assurance was just comforting the association in the lead-up to the general election, knowing fully well they were not going to treat with this issue. If that is so, it is very disingenuous on the Secretary of Health behalf and very disingenuous of Westly Orr, the CEO.”
He added: “This is a practice apparently that TRHA would have seen the NCRHA gotten away with where they are hiring nursing on very short-term employment periods extending in excess of a year. So, they hired them for three months and then they just keep renewing that three months. And then when it comes close to one year, ‘you would have to go home for a period of two weeks and then we would bring you back,’ apparently in an effort to try to break the employment period so they won’t make a full year and thus be entitled to benefits.”
He described the response by the secretary as “extremely unfortunate.”
“It defies logic for the association at this point in time and it reiterates what the association has been saying for the last three to four years – the Government is on a drive to continuously build secondary healthcare facilities; a number of hospitals throughout Trinidad and Tobago borrowing monies from the Chinese and a number of international lending organisations to put up structures and then they cannot fill these structures with the human resource required – like the Roxborough Hospital, like Point Fortin Hospital, like Arima Hospital – so they are unwilling to hire new nurses but they are willing to employ nursing personnel at reduced compensation packages. It is illogical and it cannot be continued.”
He added: “The TTRNA would be seeking our recourse and also ramping up our agitation to prevent this from continuing for much longer.
But in response on Monday, Davidson-Celestine said she could not recall making any assurances to Stuart about contract workers.
"Did he share with you the agenda? I can't recall that being part of it. If he did share the agenda, please send a copy to me," she said via WhatsApp.
Orr said he was in a board meeting and would not be able to respond.