Signs of appreciation for frontline workers are attached to the fence outside the Northwood seniors’ complex in Halifax on April 22, 2020. Photo: Erica Butler..

The Halifax Examiner is providing all COVID-19 coverage for free.

Over the weekend, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontario will pay “a pandemic premium” of $4 an hour to continuing care assistants (CCAs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), as well as dietary and cleaning staff who work in long-term care homes, group homes, home-care, and homeless shelters. The premium will be added to their hourly wage. It also applies to some people working in residential care facilities and jails.

In environments where COVID-19 is rampant, the top-up to these lower- and lowest-paid workers is a sign their work is valued during a particularly stressful time. But there can be little doubt that it’s at least equally designed to keep them from quitting.

“Today, we’re recognizing their incredible effort. We’re recognizing their sacrifice,” Ford told reporters at a news briefing. He also told reporters the province did not have the capacity to do this on its own. “The federal government played a massive role in stepping up and helping us,” Ford said.

In Ontario, the pandemic premium will continue for 16 weeks, and employees who work more than 100 hours a month will also receive a bonus of $250. More than 625 residents from 145 nursing homes in that province have died from COVID-19.

The statistics are equally grim in Quebec, where 75 of 84 new deaths reported Monday were in long-term care homes. In order to try to recruit people to fill the thousands of vacancies left after staff quit due to working conditions, Premier François Legault has also committed to paying nursing home workers more money.

Unifor is the union which represents 4,500 workers in long-term care in Nova Scotia, including at Halifax’s Northwood, where 179 residents and 71 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. To date, 18 Northwood residents have died. Unifor Atlantic Region director Linda MacNeil said she has written Premier Stephen McNeil four letters — the first dated more than a month ago on March 18, and the most recent on April 25 — urging the McNeil to add more staff and to provide more money for front-line workers during the pandemic.

“The two issues which drove people away from long-term care were working short-staffed and the low pay,” said Linda MacNeil. “We believe paying a top-up could help attract some people back to the job.”

But what if the top-up is only a temporary measure for a few months?

“In my view, the ‘pandemic premium,’ as Premier Ford has called it, is a start,” said Linda MacNeil firmly. “At least it gets workers through this horrific time and it also gives them recognition. We can talk about whether it should remain down the road. But at least it is a start in the right direction. We would love to see it introduced as it is in Ontario.”

The union remains hopeful Premier McNeil will ask the federal government for financial assistance — as Quebec and Ontario did — to retain staff working in high-risk, low-pay environments during the outbreak of COVID-19.

But so far, it doesn’t look as if the McNeil government has made such a request. In an email response to a question from the Halifax Examiner posed yesterday, provincial spokesperson Marla MacInnis wrote, “We are continually monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on our citizens and our publicly funded health sector workforce. We are not contemplating providing ‘pandemic pay premiums’ at this time.”

It’s safe to take that as “no.”

Continuing Care Assistants — who provide the bulk of personal care to seniors and home care clients — earn between $17-$19 an hour. On April 13, as the number of cases at Northwood doubled from eight to 16 in just one day, Stephen McNeil was asked if the outbreak was proof there need to be changes made to the way seniors’ homes are funded and staffed.

“Now is not the time to discuss staffing models,” McNeil said. “There will be lots of time for debate, and unions and others will have their opportunity to criticize or question what we’ve done in the past.”

Two weeks later, about one-third of the province’s 900 cases are now in nursing homes, with a huge cluster of 250 residents and staff at Northwood, where the majority of residents share rooms. Of Nova Scotia’s 24 deaths from COVID, all but two were residents of seniors’ homes. Ten days ago — with many staff off-work due to the spread of the virus — the Nova Scotia Health Authority answered a call for help and dispatched approximately 40 people, many Registered Nurses, from a unit at the Halifax Infirmary to provide stabilized staffing levels at Northwood.

The emotional and physical toll on trained staff working in these institutions — where understaffing for the complex needs of frail, elderly residents was flagged years before the emergence of Covid-19 — will only become a more pointed policy debate for the Nova Scotia government.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. This government’s treatment of LTC residents and staff has been a disgrace for years: the pandemic is just illuminating and greatly exacerbating a crisis that already existed. The fact that they refuse to even provide a minimal top-up for staff as other provincial governments are doing in recognition of the critical and dangerous work they are doing right now, indicates they have no intention change that. In fact they’re probably worried that once instituted the changes might become more permanent, as they should. There should be a high political cost to pay for such egregious failures of leadership on this file.

    While on the topic of government underfunding, it might be useful to revisit a couple of lines from an earlier Examiner column on the subject, i.e. “The current situation can’t help but make a person wonder whether the “outbreaks” today would have been better controlled if nursing homes had the money to hire more permanent staff. This spring’s provincial budget increased funding by just $5 million.”

    While this is true and the question an important one to ask (we all know the answer), it needs to be put in the crucial context of McNeil’s earlier and even greater cutbacks to LTC, which this increase didn’t even offset. Judy Haiven covers it in an excellent article on the subject for her blog “Another Ruined Dinner Party” . A couple of excerpts:

    “…two successive McNeil governments have cut the budgets of most of the province’s 132 nursing homes and residential care facilities. In 2015-17, the Liberal government reduced grants to long-term care by $8.1 million.
    Northwood’s president and CEO, Janet Simm, said the 2016 cuts amounted to $360,000 for her institution; in 2017 the cut was nearly $600,00. While Northwood undertook group purchasing and other measures to economize, the biggest challenge was food. In part this was because more and more residents had special diets. On average, nursing homes spent $6 per resident per day for food. Some residents complained that a meal supplement drink (such as Boost) was offered at meal times in order to trim the food bills. In his 2017-18 budget, McNeil reinstated $3.2 million.
    Then, in the 2019-20 budget, the government added a further $2.8 million. But to fully restore that initial $8.1 million and inflation, the government would have had to add $8,764,120. Instead the McNeil government restored a total of only $6,000,000. So there was a net loss of funding to long-term care of $2,764,120.

    Still, in the government’s defence, from 2013-2016 the Liberals did put $55 million into homecare. The idea was to support seniors who wanted to stay in their own homes. In fact, at the time, increased funding for homecare was a trend in government budgets right across the country.
    Though Anthony Taylor agreed homecare deserved to be bolstered, not at the cost of long-term care. Taylor is the administrator of the 111-bed nursing home, Oakwood Terrace, in Dartmouth. In 2015, Oakwood suffered a budget cut of $82,000, and in 2016 another cut of $86,000. Said Taylor, “Those two years, back to back, this government has cut more money from this nursing home than any other government has done to this home in the 34 years we have existed.”

    Well worth reading the entire article:

  2. I do wonder what policies where not followed or implemented, that allowed for this to spread in Northwood? Were workers told they had to report for work instead of self isolate, as they are healthcare workers and were exempt from the initial orders? Does any of this open potential legal action against Northwood or the NS government? This was the one place that should have been protected as much as hospitals are/were.

    1. Hoarding PPE or they just don’t have enough and they won’t admit it.

      It was known in March that asymptomatic people could spread the virus. Masks were recommended by scientists. Dr. Strang said he knew this, but didn’t implement masks in nursing homes and homecare until last weekend – 4 weeks later. 2 masks a day. If you remove it to eat or drink, it is supposed to be thrown out. That’s a long 12 hours for 2 masks.

      Meanwhile I saw a picture of the CEO of Northwood on the phone with her mask dangling off of one ear. I guess she’ll re-use it. She’s not helping in prevention.

      Nick Beaton’s call for more PPE fell on deaf Stephen McNeil ears. The premier was on with Steve Murphy the day after Kristen Beaton was murdered, and McNeil was asked about the lack of PPE, and he said “we were providing that to them”.

      Dr. Strang saying I know so and so inside Northwood and they’re telling me everything is good. Of course they’re going to tell him what he wants to hear. That’s what you tell your boss. They’re aren’t going to tell him the LPN’s are crying and scared to death cause of the lack of PPE.

      And McNeil always throws out Fred Crooks’ name and what a fine job he is doing getting the required supplies, but never answers the question of do we have enough.

  3. The murderous rampage that began at a Portapique party might also be part of the Covid-19 story.
    I know my first thoughts on hearing about a ‘party’, was watching the Premier and the Chief Medical Officer say ‘no gatherings with more than 5 people’.
    I also recall them begging well-heeled HRM urbanites not to potentially spread Covid 19 from current hotspot metro Halifax (757 positives) to current cold spot Northern Zone (39 positives) by going out to visit their summer cottages.
    I realize that even asking these awkward questions will raise the ire of the “think only kind thoughts’ brigade but these questions do need to be asked – and answered….

    1. And let us not forget that the right honourable Premier had zero problem calling out another group of Nova Scotians (now coded: Dartmouth East) for alleged “partying.” The double standards are obvious. But trip this: Some of us cannot and will not be played.

      1. Just to clarify the record, another media outlet reported the “party” at Portapique. I haven’t been able to independently verify that.

  4. I was on the Board of a Long Term Care Home for a number of years. Support for long term care has eroded over many years. Older nursing homes were designed for a healthier cadre of seniors. Longer life expectancy and support for seniors to remain at home, means that those folks that eventually end up in the homes are on average older and in poorer health. They require more care than the funding and system design allows.
    Staffing levels impact the ability of workers to meet the needs of residents. Some dedicated family members volunteer and provide important support (but they are no longer able to assist). Other family members can be a source of conflict (as they feel guilty their loved ones have been placed in a home, and the staff levels and funding levels are not adequate).
    Very tough for staff and for family.
    A friggin mess