Nelson hospital laundry to be privatized

Interior Health says it will push ahead with contracting out laundry services at Kootenay Lake Hospital, expected to take effect in 2017.

Hospital laundry workers and supporters gathered in front of city hall on Monday ahead of a decision today by Interior Health to contract out the laundry service at Kootenay Lake Hospital.

Interior Health will push ahead with contracting out laundry services at Kootenay Lake Hospital and several other larger centres, but continue to do the job in-house at some smaller facilities.

The health authority announced today that it has reached a 20-year agreement with Ecotex Healthcare Linen Service Inc. to provide the majority of linen and laundry services through a centralized Kelowna-based facility, supported by regional distribution centres.

“A clear case exists to proceed with outsourcing laundry services at our major facilities,” board chair Erwin Malzer said in a news release. “With an anticipated savings of about $35 million over the life of the contract we will be able to increase our investment in facilities and equipment to support direct patient care, including necessary upgrades and expansions of our emergency departments and operating rooms.”

Hospitals in Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon, and Kamloops are affected in addition to Nelson. A total of 93 full-time equivalent positions will be lost, including 17 in Nelson. However, smaller laundries in Ashcroft, Lillooet, Golden, Princeton, 100 Mile House, and Williams Lake were spared the axe and will continue to be operated by Interior Health.

Ecotex is expected to take over laundry services by the summer of 2017. The company is headquartered in Seattle but has an Abbotsford office, and has provided laundry services for Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health, Provincial Health Services, and Providence Health Care, as well as clients in Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. It is expected to build a new facility in Kelowna and hire about 90 people.

Interior Health insisted the move will have little impact on the carbon footprint of its laundry service, explaining that increased freight will be largely offset by a consolidated, more energy-efficient centralized facility.

Malzer acknowledged that employees, who have campaigned to save their jobs — including at a rally Monday in Nelson — will be disappointed with the decision.

“While there will be job displacement within our sites, we believe the commitment by Ecotex to build a facility in the southern interior and hire residents from our region will offset some of the impact felt. We will also work with the Hospital Employees’ Union to support laundry employees as they consider options for the future, whether that is through accessing vacancies or retraining.”

The HEU, which represents the laundry workers, called the news “deeply disappointing.”

“Over the past year, there’s been a groundswell of public concern about the economic impact privatizing hospital laundry will have on Interior communities,” HEU secretary-business manager Jennifer Whiteside said in a news release.

“Privatizing a public, in-house hospital service that IHA admits is running efficiently doesn’t make sense. Not for the patients and surgical teams who rely on timely, sterile linens. Not for the people who do this vital work. And not for the communities that will be impacted by job loss.”

In November, Simon Fraser University economist Marvin Shaffer concluded Interior Health failed to establish a valid business case for privatizing hospital laundry services, following his review of IHA internal documents obtained through freedom of information requests.

“It’s astounding to us that the IHA has demonstrated such disregard for the quality of service our members work so hard to provide, and the economic well-being of the communities in which they work,” Whiteside said.

Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall said she was surprised by the decision given the backlash to the proposal since it was announced. Over 12,000 people signed a petition tabled in the legislature last year and Nelson city council passed a motion protesting the move.

“We just lost the most efficient laundry in BC so the IHA can build a private facility in Kelowna and have our sheets necessary for surgeries trucked back and forth over the Paulson Pass,” she said. “I am so disappointed. It’s not a good outcome for the community, not good for the people, and not good for our health care system.”

While some Okanagan laundry employees might find work at the new facility, she doubted they would earn the same wages.

Mungall also said although the new facility isn’t expected to be running until after the next provincial election, the 20-year contract will have to be honoured by the government of the day. “I don’t see a way around this. If other people do, I’m all ears.”

Although a decision was initially expected in December, it was deferred for a few months after new Interior Health CEO Chris Mazurkewich ordered a review.

Donna Lommer, Interior Health’s chief financial officer, said in an interview that there wasn’t a strong business case for privatizing laundry at the smaller facilities due to the small volumes and additional freight involved.

Interior Health spends about $10 million a year to operate laundry services and believes about $10.5 million is needed over the next several years to replace equipment such as washing machines.

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