Beware of the tipping point with placement agencies in our CPEs and youth centers

It is difficult to attract or even retain childcare workers, special educators, social workers or teachers in our public networks these days. Never mind, private employment agencies have what it takes to take over: higher salaries, flexible hours and à la carte services. So many enticing promises that hit home, to the point of starting to seriously destabilize the organization of these essential services.

Rooted in health, the use of independent labor (ME) in childcare centers (CPE) as well as in youth centers or even school centers is not new. Long marginal, the practice is tending to spread, with a notable acceleration since the pandemic. In fact, it has acted as a revelation for many people wishing to regain control over their daily lives. This legitimate aspiration is difficult to reconcile with these jobs. Because they have at their center small and larger humans, these indeed command schedules and a personal investment that very often go beyond the expected framework.

Under the pen of Romain Schué, last week, Radio-Canada put figures and words on how the phenomenon can quickly disrupt CPEs. Traditionally, they turn to agencies to meet specific needs, such as illness or vacation. Many now rely on independent labor to run their business on a daily basis, for lack of being able to retain or attract vital forces, despite the wage advances recently granted by Quebec.

This back and forth weighs heavily on their already tight budgets – according to data provided to Radio-Canada, the hourly rate billed can climb by a good ten dollars. Just as it weakens their teams in place in addition to weakening their mission. Benefiting from a higher salary, the educators called in as reinforcements often arrive without experience or training in early childhood. They also have the luxury of choosing their schedules and drawing a line between what they are willing to do…or not. Surprise: babies and diaper changes are among the most frequent foils.

Difficult, under these conditions, to ensure uniformity of services. Above all, it is impossible to offer employees equal treatment. The phenomenon is also observed in youth centres. Already, in 2021, the growing use of agencies had been the subject of significant media coverage. The Legault government had put the lid on the pot, saying that it was better to resort to this type of troubleshooting than to risk a break in services. In the same breath, he said he was sure to face a phenomenon as restricted as it was transitory. The solutions were known, and the room for maneuver to set them in motion, assured, he said then. Not enough to make a meal out of it.

However, the exodus continued in the youth centers. The Alliance of Professional and Technical Personnel in Health and Social Services (APTS) again deplored last week an “alarming drop in the workforce in all regions of Quebec”. We are far from the definition of a temporary phenomenon. When asked about the use of agencies in certain key sectors of our public services, the Legault government has a ready-made reply: the MOI constitutes “a solution of last resort” when “all other measures have been exhausted”.

Easy to say piecemeal, but what do we do when the last resort persists in coming back on a regular, even daily basis? We have clearly seen the mess that resorting to agencies ended up making in healthcare. From 2016 to 2022, the exponential growth in the use of agencies for nurses or caregivers completely disrupted the network. The Minister of Health, Christian Dubé, had to resolve, last February, to table a bill giving him the power to supervise and even to prohibit the use of the MOI and employment agencies.

Breaking with what has become a real “vicious circle”, according to Minister Dubé, promises to be extremely long, however. The complete eradication of the use of the MOI in health is not envisaged before 2026 by his ministry. The transition promises to be just as risky. Barring a profound culture change and a noticeable improvement in the working conditions of unionized healthcare workers, the transition could bring the straight network back to breaking point if it fails.

In public services as fragile as ours, the use of agencies and the MOI can quickly take on the appearance of a Trojan horse. It is time that we realize this. We may not have yet reached a point of no return in CPEs or youth centres. But do we want or even can we run the risk of seeing history repeat itself?

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