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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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