On Nov. 15, 2021, 25 full-time and five casual laundry workers had their last shift at the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury in Ponoka.
Six washers and six dryers now sit idle in the large, silent laundry facility that served central Alberta communities (including Rimbey and Breton) for decades, and various folding equipment and tables remain empty.
“Laundry is very empty today,” said Leonard Icke, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) union steward representing the laundry workers.
“The hustle and bustle of the machines and the people who were there … it’s very lonely,” said Icke, who started out in laundry services himself 18 years ago.
There is just one full-time and two part-time laundry workers left under AHS left at the Centennial Centre, who handle the personal laundry and bedding of residents.
Icke said people were angry with the decision to privatize health care laundry services across the province.
“There’s been a lot of hard feelings and worry,” said Icke.
He added the government has been threatening to close in-house laundry services for two years, and when the announcement was made it would be phased out, there was only three months’ notice given, and only one month’s notice for their location.
“Lots of grey hairs were created,” he said.
“Luckily the union contract reads the employer (Alberta Health Services) has to try to get them another job at the same pay grade.”
AHS had to offer the workers a position within a 50 kilometre radius of their old job.
However, the jobs offered didn’t have to be full-time equivalent (FTE) positions.
Of the 30 laundry workers at Centennial, six are now out of work (not including those who retired). The rest accepted new positions, but those jobs aren’t in laundry, said Icke.
Icke said some positions offered were at greatly reduced hours, and if they’re less than .6 FTE, no benefits are included.
It was up to the member whether they wanted to accept the position offered.
The longest-standing laundry staff member had worked at Centennial for about 30 years, but even some of the newest workers had been there for five years.
Susan Kriel had worked as a casual laundry worker at the Centennial for 13 years, and is now out of work as she declined the position offered to her.
For Kreil, working in laundry services at Centennial was the perfect job.
There was flexibility with the shifts and she could choose what hours worked for her, she said.
“Forced retirement is never happy,” she said.
“I guess what was most shocking, even with my union fighting for me, was at the drop of a hat, I was out of a job.”
She said she was just “stunned” when she heard.
Kreil said she will likely look for other work, as even though she’s 65, she says she is easily bored. She’s concerned, however, that she will have difficulty finding something part-time or casual.
All other casual positions that were available were shifts of all hours and wouldn’t have worked for her, she said.
Kreil said she’s not really as displaced as some of the others, and for some, moving to other facilities actually meant they’re working closer to home.
For example, one full-time worker who lived in Lacombe, has now been moved to a full-time position in Lacombe, she said.
Linen and laundry services started to transition to private contractor K-Bro starting in September, 2021.
A news release from AHS at the time stated that over two-thirds of linen services in Alberta were already being provided by K-Bro and they had a “proven track record of providing high-quality laundry services.”
Province-wide, the change will impact approximately 334 full-time, part-time and casual employees.
According to AHS, if they would’ve tried to maintain existing in-house services, it would’ve cost more than $38 million in upgrades to ensure both safety and quality of services. Building new facilities was also estimated at over $100 million.
“The best (solution) wouldn’t been to upgrade the facility and keep everything in-house,” said Icke.
According to Icke, the government hadn’t put in any major new equipment, for probably 20 years, except for putting in a new conveyor belt last year, that was probably used.
The conveyor had been added to save the workers from lifting the heavy bags and was needed to prevent injuries, he said.
According to Icke, five years after B.C. decided to privatize their health care laundry, food and house cleaning services, they found they weren’t getting the same quality of services and weren’t saving money, and reversed the decision.
Icke claims there won’t be the same quality from a private contractor.
“AHS sets a standard to the contractor, and it’s up to the contractor to match it, but we all know things slip,” said Icke.
He added that in-house turnaround on laundry is one day, but contractors would probably take three.
He said privatizing laundry won’t save the province money in the long run, because there is nothing to stop the contractor from raising their rates after their initial contract expires.
“And there goes your cost saving,” said Icke.
Whereas, with in-house services, the wages were controlled by AHS, he said.
The Ponoka Hospital and Care Centre did not have in-house laundry services, as it was all done at Centennial previously.
On their last day of work, other staff members at the Centennial Centre placed signs at both entrances, which spelled out, “Farewell laundry staff we will miss you.”
“They were our co-workers and members of the union I represent,” said Icke. “We had to do something for them.”