Coronavirus: Deaths shine light on precarious work in longterm care homes

Workers at for-profit and municipally-run facilities say they feel under immense pressure to continue to work, despite feeling sick or not having the proper protective equipment

“We talk a lot about heroes in Ontario,” Merrilee Fullerton, the province’s minister of long-term care, remarked at Thursday’s daily press briefing at Queen’s Park. 

Fullerton has recently joined Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott at the briefings after a rash of deaths at longterm care facilities in the province. She had a special message for PSWs, or Personal Support Workers, working in the system.

“I’m speaking directly to you from the bottom of my heart,” the minister said. “Thank you, thank you for all you do.”

The minister shared that she’s heard their stories and how their lives have been affected. “We are seeing how this virus is unfolding in a vicious way.”

Fullerton promised the government’s support. “We will spare no expense to keep people in long-term care safe.”

It’s been a tragic week in Ontario’s long-term care facilities, and in nursing homes across the country. Almost half of all fatalities from COVID-19 in Canada have occurred in long-term care facilities.

That reality has presented workers in Ontario’s for-profit and municipally-run longterm care facilities, from housecleaners to PSWs and nursing staff, with some tough decisions.

Workers at the facilities feel under immense pressure to continue working, despite feeling sick, or not having the proper protective equipment, says Carolina Jimenez, a registered nurse and co-ordinator with Decent Work & Health Network. The group founded by the Worker’s Action Network and Health Providers Against Poverty in  2014, held a video press conference Thursday morning to respond to the recent deaths and government’s moves in response.

On Monday, the province announced plans to top-up part-time workers’ salaries so they can forgo shifts to reduce the need for travel between jobs. (Many are hired through temp agencies while others work at several facilities a day to make ends meet, which has also raised concerns about increases in the chance of transmitting the virus.) The province has also moved to stop the transfer of patients from hospitals to long-term care homes.

While the province’s wage top-up is “a step in the right direction,” Jimenez says that many working in the for-profit sector don’t receive paid sick days – which were scrapped by the Ford government. And many who are immigrants and single parents are working for minimum wage. That includes, housekeeping, sanitation and security staff.

Their jobs were precarious to begin with. The pandemic has now highlighted how undervalued their work is, Jimenez says. “Precarious work is not just a health hazard during a pandemic.”

Febe Jimenez (no relation), a Personal Support Worker at a retirement home in Hamilton, told the press conference that her co-workers “are extremely afraid” to work. And that, “when the environment is not safe, you’re bringing stress home.”

She says that while workers in Ontario have the right to refuse unsafe work, “you grow attached (to the people you care for) and you don’t want to leave them.”

Tina Dagnall, a nurses’ aide, says that the municipally-run nursing home she works at in Port Hope had just come out of flu season when the pandemic hit. The stress and anxiety haven’t let up. She says some staff are afraid of passing the virus to their children, “but many don’t have a choice” but to continue working.

Charlene Nero, a LiUNA local 3000 staff representative, says working conditions vary at for-profit facilities. She says most workers, however, are finding it hard to make a living wage. She says that those on the lower end of the wage scale are earning about $14.50 an hour. Those at the top end, which would be nurses, are earning about $25 an hour. 

“You have some employers that have stepped up and others that have taken a more heavy-handed approach despite record profits,” Nero says.

But she says that the government capped public sector pay increases to one per cent with Bill 124 while “grossly underfunding” hospitals and municipally-run homes. She worries the pandemic will now cause irreparable harm to the long-term care sector.

“People are going to leave the field,” she says. 


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