Employees of Windsor Regional Hospital, including members of Toronto Local 636, stand in front of a temporary field hospital at St. Clair College. It was constructed to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Linda Georgiu affectionately calls the clerical workers she represents at Windsor Regional Hospital and Windsor’s Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare in Ontario as “my girls.” Only two men are among the 548 members working at the two facilities.

Local 636 members employed by Hotel Dieu-Grace Healthcare in Windsor. The members pictured are clerical workers at the facility, which specializes in addictions, mental health and rehabilitative services.

These days, the business representative for Local 636 – which has members across the province and is based in Toronto -- spends much of her time serving as the unit’s unofficial therapist as she listens and tries to address the concerns of those members, who are among the hospital’s first employees to interact with incoming patients suffering from the COVID-19 virus.

If a member is potentially exposed, “they get their temperature taken twice a day, ensure they are wearing a surgical mask and remain asymptomatic, but they do not get to go home because they have been exposed,” she said. “If that was the case, you would have no one working at the hospital.”

About 950 of the 4,000 members of Local 636 work in health care. The IBEW has long been more than just an electrical union, but having so many members working for health providers is unique.

Perhaps more than anyone, these Local 636 members are on the front lines next to doctors, nurses, housekeepers and transporters.

“They have stepped up,” Business Manager Domenic Murdaca said. “They go to work every day with the fear of getting the virus and bringing it home to their families. But they know they have to keep the clerical and critical needs of the hospitals and the places where they work running. We’re really proud of them.”

Local 636’s membership is spread out across Ontario. Murdaca’s office is in Niagara Falls, about 20 miles from Buffalo, N.Y. Georgiu lives in Windsor, just across the river from Detroit.

Business Representative Brian Manninger lives in Chatham, about 40 miles from Windsor, and represents 250 personal support workers employed by Assisted Living Southwestern Ontario. They aid in-home patients suffering from physical disabilities and acquired brain injuries.

Local 636 member Sharon Holland and chief steward Jen Rocheleau on the job at Windsor Regional Hospital, where they work as unit clerks in the intensive care unit.

Those workers often perform their work in low-income homes that aren’t properly cleaned. Manninger said three bargaining unit members were diagnosed with COVID-19 but are expected to recover. Another 12 are in self isolation after having worked with those who have tested positive.

“It’s frightening,” Manninger said. “Our members are scared. They’re putting their safety and the safety of their families on the line every day.”

Tim Pitts, another Local 636 business representative, represents about 130 personal support members working for Empower Simcoe in Orillia in central Ontario. They go into private homes and group homes to work with patients suffering from permanent disabilities.

None of those bargaining-unit members have tested positive for COVID-19, but it has created other threats to safety. Nearly one month ago, a patient reacted violently after being told he no longer could take accompanied trips outside his facility due to the pandemic and choked a Local 636 member on duty.

That member has yet to return to work, Pitts said.

“People in group homes are all challenged to some degree,” he said. “Some are mentally cognizant and some aren’t, but all are having their routines changed and they sometimes take that out on our members.”

Murdaca and the business representatives have been raising several issues in conversations with the provincial government and employers, including ensuring that they have the proper personal protective equipment to perform their duties.  After a slow start, they’re convinced employers are doing all they can to provide PPE and continue to advocate for outstanding issues.

For the hospital employees, that means facemasks are a must. Those working with assisted living patients wear face shields when available. Facemasks and gloves are worn at all times, although Pitts said workers sometimes must wear the same pair of gloves throughout a day.

“The very frontline at a hospital often is the clerical workers,” said Georgiu, who worked at Windsor Regional for 21 years. “They register the patient before they go in to see the nurses. Their facemasks are every bit as important as anyone else’s.”

Unlike the United States, Canada has universal health care, but it is funded by the provinces.

Pitts noted that mental health funds were slashed through Ontario after the Progressive Conservative Party won a majority in the 2018 provincial elections. The members he represents have not had a raise in three years. Negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement were suspended due to the pandemic. All bargaining unit members’ vacations were canceled by the provincial government as well, he said.

The nearby community of Bobcaygeon, where Pitts lives, made national news in Canada when it was revealed 29 people in a senior living center there died of COVID-19. The facility’s workers are not IBEW members, but that revelation has only heightened the stress for Local 636 members employed by Simcoe – and everyone else in the area.

“I try to remind them what a great job they’re doing and how much myself, as a resident of Ontario, appreciates how hard they are working for their community,” Pitts said. “I try to remind them of safe practices and not to do anything that puts them in harm’s way. If they personally feel like the work is dangerous, they can refuse to do it.”

Manninger said the members’ commitment to doing good work in stressful and often unsafe conditions has been inspiring.

“They are concerned as much as for the people they look after as for themselves and their families,” he said. “I have so much respect for what they do, I’m almost at a loss for words. I can’t imagine what they are going through. It’s frightening for me to think about.”

Those Local 636 members continue to show up, however – something they’ll keep doing throughout the worst health crisis in North America in more than a century.

“The work they do, they have to be dedicated to their jobs,” Manninger said. “It’s one of the most difficult jobs I can describe.”

Local 636 also represents employees in alarm and signal, sound and public access, public utilities and manufacturing, all of which are experiencing layoffs brought on by the pandemic. Manninger also is working to extend protections for about 35 bus drivers that Local 636 represents in Stratford, Ontario.

“I could not be prouder of the work our members in the healthcare sector are doing on the front lines every day, risking their own well-being during this unprecedented time,” First District Vice President Thomas Reid said. “Many other IBEW members are on the front line and continue to provide critical services in utilities, telecommunications, railroads, government, construction and other areas. I’m so proud to represent all of them across Canada.”