14 staff at Dartmouth in-patient psychiatric ward receive layoff notices

About half the staff at an in-patient psychiatric unit at the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth, N.S., are being laid off.

Eleven developmental workers and three licensed practical nurses will lose their positions at Emerald Hall at the beginning of January.

The employees work in a nine-bed unit that serves residents who have both an intellectual disability and a mental illness.

Residents in the unit have high needs and some are not able to speak, the director of mental health and addictions for the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s central zone said.

“Many, once they come to hospital, can be very hard to discharge from hospital because if they have challenging behaviours, they might not be suitable to live in a group home or to return to their family home,” said Rachel Boehm.

Rachel Boehm is the director of mental health and addictions for the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s central zone. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Boehm said the layoffs are part of changes in the model of care that aim to help reintegrate residents into the community.

“There’s a lot of new research and evidence about how to intervene in challenging behaviours and really get people rehabilitated and on the way to recovery so that they can go back and live in the community and not stay in hospital with us so long,” she said.

“We feel we need to make these changes and keep moving in this new direction.”

A recent Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ruling found that the provincial government discriminated against three people with mental and physical disabilities — some of whom were institutionalized for years at the locked Emerald Hall ward — because there was no suitable place in the community to house or support them.

The developmental workers will be replaced with therapeutic assistants, who have received training through the Nova Scotia Community College.

Currently, Emerald Hall has 11 developmental workers, three licensed practical nurses, eight registered nurses, two therapeutic assistants and six other staff. After the staffing changes, there will be 18 therapeutic assistants, 13 registered nurses and six other staff.

Union disputes need for layoffs

The president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, Jason MacLean, said there isn’t much difference between the duties the therapeutic assistants will perform and those of the developmental workers, but the therapeutic assistants will have a community college diploma, while the developmental workers were not required to have a specific educational background.

MacLean said the union feels the current workers, some of whom have worked at Emerald Hall for decades, should be offered an opportunity to undergo the required training instead of being laid off.

“What we’re saying is invest in the people that you have there,” he said. “I’m quite sure that our members would agree to do that training because they love the work that they do.”

Jason MacLean is the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

One key difference between the two positions, MacLean said, is that developmental workers perform what he called “security” work, physically intervening if residents become violent or combative. He said therapeutic assistants will not do that.

Affected employees will be offered other positions within the health authority, subject to the collective agreement. MacLean said some employees are being offered positions that pay less and are located in other areas of the province.

The union has filed a grievance over the layoffs, saying the employer has not followed the proper procedures.

Boehm said the decision, which is “cost-neutral,” was not an easy one to make.

“Many have served for many years and have done so with great compassion and dedication and we’re so grateful for the time that they have devoted to this unit,” she said.


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