December 9, 2023

The clinic’s months-long struggle to find a new administrator is yet another indicator of Whistler’s ongoing staff shortage.

Whistler’s Options for Sexual Health Clinic is shutting down as of Oct. 31 due to a staff shortage, but Options’ executive director Michelle Fortin wants to make one thing clear.

“We’re not closing,” she said.

The clinic’s doors will ideally only stay shut short-term, with Options (the non-profit medical health service provider formerly known as Planned Parenthood Association of B.C.) planning to reopen once it hires a new administrator.

Whistler’s Options for Sexual Health Clinic is currently open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:45 to 7:30 p.m. at the Whistler Health Care Centre, offering services like birth control counselling, low-cost contraceptives, sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening, cervical screening, pregnancy testing and pro-choice options counselling, as well as general sexual health education and referrals to about 25 patients each week. It’s one of 45 pop-up style clinics Options operates across the province.

“We have been trying for about five months now to replace our receptionist,” Fortin explained. “They gave us lots of [notice] and we’ve got lots of clinicians like nurses and doctors that absolutely want to continue to deliver STI care and contraceptive care in Whistler, through the Options clinic, but … we’ve had a hard time finding people to replace our receptionist, and without administration, we can’t run the clinic.”

Beyond the standard medical intake forms and clerical work that comes with the job, she added, “Happily, there’s lots of people having sex in Whistler, but it also means there’s more STI testing in Whistler, so it’s really important that we’ve got administrators that can respond to and receive the lab work for people, so that we can ensure we get [patients] in if they need a follow-up appointment.”

Fortin said she hopes one of the applicants who recently expressed interest in the part-time administration position “will come on board very quickly,” allowing the clinic to get back up and running before ski season.

In fact, Options is “also working with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to maybe increase the footprint of the clinic in Whistler, in part because the demand has been so, so high, and during COVID even higher” she added, citing the many primary care doctors across B.C. who turned to virtual platforms during the pandemic. 

“You can’t do an STI test or a pap cervical cancer screening by telehealth,” Fortin said.

Asked where Whistlerites can access similar services in the meantime, a spokesperson for VCH said in an email the health authority “is committed to providing comprehensive health-care services and support to residents of the Sea to Sky corridor.”

While VCH is currently working with B.C.’s Ministry of Health and a Primary Care Networks (PCN) steering committee to establish more PCNs in the region—possibly including the Sea to Sky corridor—“VCH is also in the process of freeing up some space in the Whistler Health Care Centre (WHCC) to accommodate more primary care providers,” the spokesperson added.

The statement also highlighted the WHCC’s Youth Services program, offering confidential drop-in appointments—for services including but not limited to free or low-cost contraception, STI testing, pregnancy testing and counselling and mental health services—to youth aged 19 or under.

Meanwhile, an Options for Sexual Health Clinic operates in Squamish on Tuesdays from 5 to 7 p.m., while the non-profit’s province-wide team of registered nurses, counsellors, and sex educators is available to offer information through its Sex Sense program at 1-800-739-7367.

Staff shortage: B.C. recorded 169,280 total job vacancies in Q2

The local clinic’s temporary closure is just one more example of the ongoing labour shortage challenging Whistler employers ahead of what’s expected to be a busy ski season.

“It’s not just the tourism and hospitality industry that’s being affected, it’s all industries,” acknowledged Cindy Conti, an HR consultant focused on the Lower Mainland, Coast and Mountains region for go2HR, B.C.’s tourism and hospitality human resource and health and safety association.

According to the most recent data available from Statistics Canada, B.C. had 169,280 total job vacancies in the second quarter (Q2) of 2022. Of those, 10,260 were health-care occupations, offering an average hourly wage of $32.85, while 60,200 were in the sales and service industry (up from 39,920 vacancies in Q2 2021), which provided an average hourly wage of $17.85. There were 4,200 vacant positions among art, culture, recreation and sport occupations (well above the 2,235 vacancies recorded in the same period a year prior) which paid employees $29.80 per hour on average.

Not all statistics painted a negative picture: according to go2HR’s BC Tourism and Hospitality Employment Tracker, employment in the province’s Tourism and Hospitality sector grew by 0.14 per cent from 353,500 in August 2022 to 354,000 in September 2022, surpassing pre-COVID levels with 17,000 more jobs compared to September 2019.

Still, the province’s Tourism and Hospitality labour force—meaning people working in the Tourism and Hospitality sector and unemployed individuals seeking work whose last job was in the sector—decreased by two per cent to 361,000 in September 2022, about 6,000 less than August’s total.

Some regions are having more difficulty recruiting workers to the industry than others, Conti acknowledged, with factors like baby boomers retiring en masse, employees who chose to pivot away from hospitality work amid pandemic restrictions, affordability, and housing challenges all contributing to the labour crunch.

B.C.’s employment landscape is prompting employers to take a step back and assess how their business functions, Conti said, whether that means melding two positions into one or changing policies in an effort to prioritize employee well-being.

Her advice? “You want to be able to keep the good employees that come to you as well,” she said, “Review what you’re already doing and if it’s working, and if it isn’t, find a better way to do it. Reach out to your fellow employers, other businesses, and find out if they’re doing something better than you are—share ideas, best practices, especially in smaller communities. What works for one might not work for another, but really just be open to different ideas … be innovative, and if something’s not working, then fix it.”

For Fortin, adjusting Options’ recruitment strategy in Whistler means shelling out precious funds to advertise the receptionist job beyond free platforms like Indeed and Craigslist; offering a higher-than-usual starting wage for the part-time gig; and investigating whether any extra incentives, like a ski pass, can be obtained to “sweeten the pot,” she said.

Though Whistler’s Options clinic has begun interviewing for the position, Fortin still encouraged interested candidates who are “engaging, comfortable talking about sex and reproductive health, and … organized” to apply.

“It’s an evening job that’s not in a bar,” she said. Plus, “It’s a really fulfilling role—people walk in[to the clinic] anxious and they walk out smiling because whatever was ailing them, they know how to manage it when they leave.

“There’s a lot of joy in it.” 


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