Across the province, personal support workers (PSWs) have been walking out on their jobs because of unsafe working conditions created by COVID-19. Lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), infrequent COVID-19 testing, and a chronic shortage of staff have put PSWs at greater risk of contracting the virus. These issues coupled with long-standing concerns such as low-wages and precarious schedules, have highlighted the need for better supports for PSW’s during the pandemic.
At the time of publication, the Ontario government reported 1,111 COVID-19 deaths of residents in long-term care (LTC) homes with 2,831 active cases for residents and 1,671 for staff. The total number of COVID-19 deaths in Ontario is 1,477.
To address the growing numbers of new cases, measures have been implemented to better manage outbreaks and protect the health of LTC staff. Prioritizing the distribution of PPE, deploying COVID-19 teams from hospitals, enhancing infection control training, and most recently calling in military aid are some of these measures. Despite this, there is still a need to increase protections for PSWs, who continue to risk their own lives to care for older adults at risk of infection.
PSWs represent about 85 per cent of the staff in LTC homes. Yet, they remain unregulated, poorly paid and are disproportionately represented by racialized women with precarious schedules, who must work in multiple LTC homes to make ends meet.
These long-standing inequities have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, in efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Ontario government prohibited employees, including PSWs, from working in multiple long-term care facilities. And while this measure helps keep people safe, it lowers the income PSWs are able to earn. It also creates competition for work at higher-paying facilities. Some employment agencies are offering $35 an hour to work with patients testing positive for COVID-19, while others pay minimum wage. Without guaranteed full-time hours or a uniform wage, PSWs may be able to pursue income supports, like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, to help offset their lost income, but this still leaves fewer PSWs to care for older people who are vulnerable to the virus.
One welcome change in response to COVID-19 has been the announcement of temporary pandemic pay, which resulted in $4.00 added to hourly wages and a $250 bonus for those who work more than 100 hours per month. While this does not address concerns around reduced hours or the lack of uniform pay, it is a step in the right direction to address recruitment and retention issues of PSWs plaguing the LTC sector.
But pay is not the only concern.
While guidelines continue to evolve as more cases are linked to LTC homes, the protection extended to PSWs has not significantly improved. While proactive measures, such as the Ontario government’s recent commitment to increased PPE production will help keep PSWs and LTC residents safer, Ontario’s directive for COVID-19 testing is only for symptomatic residents and staff, including those linked to the outbreak.
Ontario may be able to look to other provinces for best practices. In fact, the B.C. government recently implemented a policy making all LTC staff provincial employees, who are employed full-time at one facility, with pay comparable to workers in public-sector unionized positions.
Similar efforts are also required in the home and community sector. Although outbreaks in LTC homes outnumber those seen in the community, PSWs supporting high-risk, home care residents are equally vulnerable and so require the necessary protections provided in LTC homes.
Ontario should follow the B.C. example and also expand its reach to the home and community sector, not only because it is good policy, but because it is crucial now, more than ever, to create safe and secure jobs for our PSWs.