Two dozen Windsor-Essex County Health Unit staff are facing layoffs due to cuts related to next year's budget.
In a news release Friday, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU)'s CEO Ken Blanchette said the cuts are happening because the health unit is getting a fixed three-year provincial increase of one per cent per year, which "does not keep up with current inflation."
Blanchette also said that the health unit is still doing work associated with COVID-19, such as outbreaks, case and contact management and vaccination efforts, but provincial money won't be available for this.
"These factors, in combination with an internal program review, created the basis for difficult but essential decisions related to reductions for the coming year," Blanchette said in the statement.
In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Health told CBC News that since 2018, the provincial government has increased funding by "nearly 13 per cent" to WECHU. It said this was in addition to the funding the government provided for pandemic response in recent years.
The statement also highlighted the existing one per cent increase in base funding.
"This increase in permanent funding, each year is in direct response to the asks of public health units, including Windsor-Essex County Public Health Unit, to the province, to provide stabilized funding," reads part of the statement.
The health unit's board approved the $24.9-million dollar budget on Nov. 20. It asks for $17.7 million in base funding from the Ministry of Health and $7.2 million from the City of Windsor, County of Essex and Township of Pelee. That's an increase of about $1.52 million from the 2023 budget.
Several programs impacted by cuts
The health unit says it has started notifying the affected unionized and non-unionized staff. In total, the WECHU says, these layoffs reduce their staff by 10 per cent, compared to the number they had in 2023.
"However through attrition and voluntary retirements we endeavour to reduce this number to the extent possible," said Blanchette.
CUPE 543 president David Petten, who represents health unit staff, says they are "bearing the brunt of these cuts." Petten says 15 of the cuts are union members, including a nutritionist, health promotion specialist and youth engagement specialist.
"The feedback that I'm getting is that members are devastated, it wasn't something that they were expecting," he said.
"Our health unit members put their heart and soul into their work, they've bought in and they appreciate the importance of the work and to find out within a very short time frame that their positions have been cut, they're devastated."
Petten says that by early next year, staff will be out of their positions.
Programs that will experience cuts, but will continue to operate, include:
Nutrition and healthy eating Services.
Infectious disease prevention.
Healthy growth and development.
Tobacco and vaping prevention.
Substance use prevention and harm reduction.
School health promotion.
Oral health promotion.
Environmental health promotion.
"We are committed to ensuring reductions in services and programs are communicated quickly to our clients and partners," Blanchette said.
Petten says it's disappointing for staff to come out of a pandemic and then be hit with cuts. He added that because of these cuts, existing members will have to pick up extra work.
Millions from COVID-19 won't be provided
In the online budget document, it notes that 2023 budget included $5.59 million in extra funding from the Ministry of Health for COVID-19 response programming. This funding won't be provided for 2024, the budget document states.
But, it says that even though funding won't be provided, the health unit continues to face "pressures" with COVID-19 as there continues to be high rates of outbreaks in high-risk congregate living settings. It says it also continues to take part in vaccine administration and distribution requirements.
"These ongoing COVID-19 response activities require an increased staffing footprint to meet the needs of our community," reads the budget.
In addition to COVID-19, it says the health unit continues to deal with a growing number of priority groups and asylum seekers, increasing food insecurity and opioid overdoses, climbing rates of youth vaping and cannabis use, and sexually transmitted and blood-borne diseases.
The budget changes include a roughly $3.6 million reduction in salaries and employee benefits, as well as a $452,441 reduction in other operating expenses.
The WECHU's budget also notes that next year, the government has said it would be doing a "full review of the program standards" with a target of implementing any changes as of Jan. 1 2025.
"The results of this process could see changes in required programming and services standards across [public health units] in Ontario, resulting in additional staffing fluctuations," the budget reads.
Petten says he's "fearful" of what that process might include for staff.
"Our health unit and other health units across the province, have been put in very difficult positions," he said.
"We have a provincial government that suggests that they are for the people and that they are basically looking after our needs and I would suggest to everyone in Windsor and across the province that that's not the case."