A man sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by union members holding signs
David Baker and CUPE members. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

“Overworked and underpaid.”

That’s the blunt message on the hand-printed sign Sharon Yates was holding at one of dozens of rallies outside nursing homes and residential care facilities Monday. 

The Day of Action was sponsored by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents about 4,500 Nova Scotians who work caring for people. 

Yates has worked as continuing care assistant (CCA) for 14 years bathing, toileting, and caring for elderly or disabled adults at Ocean View Continuing Care. After 14 years, she’s stuck at the top of the pay scale, earning $18.96 an hour. 

A lot of the friends she used to work with have left the field in the past year, said Yates. “They were burnt out and tired of being refused vacation and tired of the wages and the work load. And wanting more for residents and feeling that’s not happening.”

Staff shortages in nursing homes mean vacations are often postponed or shortened for employees who have already been working under stressful conditions because there is no one waiting in the wings when someone calls in sick.

Continuing care assistants and licensed practical nurses are used to working short-handed but most citizens don’t realize how short-handed. 

A male resident who uses a wheelchair braved the wind and sub zero temperatures whistling through the Eastern Passage location to praise and thank the staff. The Ocean View resident is David Baker. He was determined to tell Seniors and Long Term Care Minister Barbara Adams (who was invited to the rally by CUPE because she had worked at Ocean View as a physiotherapist) that one of the caregivers at the rally had just finished working the night shift. Alone. 

“She was the only person on the whole unit and she didn’t quit,” said Baker. “She stuck it out.”

Earlier this month, the Houston government announced measures to begin to address the hundreds of job vacancies for licensed practical nurses and continuing care assistants that have been a problem for years, have been identified in numerous studies including the Expert Panel on Long term Care, and have only got worse after 20 months of a pandemic.

The PC government announced $1.7 million for “human resources support to nursing home and homecare providers.” The government is paying six recruiters to work with homes to find and do the paperwork to hire more long-term care workers, many of whom will be scouted internationally. 

The government is also making $360,000 available for workers already on the job interested in upgrading their education and wages. The same amount is available for employers to provide “incentives” such as on-site child care, bus passes, and gas allowances to try and attract more people to the work.

Those measures are encouraging, said Mary Fougere, a national representative for CUPE, but they don’t go far enough toward addressing the urgency of the current problem. 

“We need to see significant recruitment by increasing the ratio of staff to residents to allow for 4.1 hours of care and we need to see it soon,” said Fougere. That type of change would cost tens of millions of dollars as opposed to the new funding announced so far.

Likewise for promises made by Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail last August, when the Liberal leader promised a minimum wage of $25 hour for personal care workers, a new act containing federal standards for nursing homes, and a commitment of $3 billion shared among the provinces to improve both the capacity (beds) and quality (staffing) for long-term care. All of those promises are still just that — promises.

Asked what she would do if she were the minister for Seniors and Long-term Care in Nova Scotia, Yates had an immediate answer.

“Hire more staff so we could provide residents with 4.1 hours of care a day, increase the wages for CCAs, and provide vacation time.”

At today’s rally, Nova Scotia’s first ever Minister for Seniors and Long-term Care repeated an earlier promise made by the Progressive Conservatives during the last provincial election campaign.

“We are going to put in legislation 4.1 hours of care per resident a day,” said Barbara Adams firmly. “That is the minimum and not a ceiling. But it won’t happen overnight.”

In fact, Adams wouldn’t even promise the workers at the rally that change to the Homes for Special Care Act will be introduced during the next session of the legislature. More consultation with stakeholders will be needed, she said. But the more probable reason is there will still be a shortage of adequately trained people willing to work in long-term care facilities unless working conditions and wages get better. 

Growing the workforce may depend mostly on the results of upcoming contract negotiations which begin early next year with CUPE and with other health care unions. Money talks. And is a sign the work you do is valued. A lot of Nova Scotians know that and want to see these health care workers better compensated so they wouldn’t have to work more than one job..

“My mother has been here at Ocean View for three years and I’m here today supporting what I consider my extended family,” said Gary Siepierski. “The workers that give Mom the care she deserves and I can’t provide her. These people are cut from a special cloth.”

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

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