The Ford government has committed itself to increasing the hours of direct care for each long-term care resident to an average of four hours per day, which will be provided by nurses or personal support workers to support individual clinical and personal care needs. It seems that the way they have found to provide that service is to encourage “specifically those who are unemployed or have been displaced from the retail and hospitality industries or administrative roles as well as students in education programs – to re-enter the workforce and make a difference by helping seniors living in long-term care homes”, according to a recent government statement.
“COVID-19 has amplified persistent staffing challenges in the long-term care sector, highlighting the need for immediate action,” said Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care. “I encourage those who are looking for new opportunities or those who have been displaced during the pandemic to consider working in a long-term care home. This will not only be personally satisfying work, it will help out our frontline staff and greatly improve the quality of life for our seniors.”
The government has started the Ontario Workforce Reserve for Senior Support, to recruit, train, and assign these recruits as Resident Support Aides (RSA) to work at homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The RSA’s will not be expected to perform medical duties, but will “assist residents with daily living activities including assistance during meal times and nutrition breaks or with the coordination of visits and support with technology or recreational activities”.
This initiative has not, however, met with a warm reception from the unions representing workers in the long-term care sector. The Canadian Union of Public Employees [CUPE] believes that recruiting people from the backgrounds identified by the government would only serve to lower standards of care for residents of long-term care facilities. In a statement responding to the government’s project, Candace Rennick, secretary treasurer of CUPE Ontario, said:
“Seniors in long-term care have very complex conditions and require care from highly-skilled healthcare workers. Lowering requirements for staff and hiring people who have no training in seniors’ care is a serious miscalculation. It is unfair to residents and unfair to existing and new workers.”
Ms. Rennick, herself a former long-term care worker, pointed out that about two-thirds of long-term care residents have been diagnosed with dementia. About 80% of people with dementia experience behavioural or psychological symptoms. CUPE is concerned that the government is not making meaningful investments in the sector. The latest budget announcement increased annual funding for long-term care by about 2.5% (about $110 million), when estimates to reach a four-hour care standard range between $1.3 to $1.6 billion (a 40% increase).
“The government’s continuing with cost-containment and shifting to a lower-classification of workers who are lower-paid, when we need to boost funding and invest in a skilled workforce,” she said.
Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE), agreed with Ms. Rennick, pointing out in a statement that “it was naïve to believe the essentially untrained staff will not wind up doing resident care”.
“The deconstruction of the personal support workers [PSWs] work by taking away the non-care functions which provide some relief will simply add to their job stress and burnout. This will alienate the PSWs even more by creating another classification that does the lighter workload while they slog away with the heavier elements of the job.”
Calling the government’s initiative “a band-aid solution”, Mr. Hurley called instead for a massive recruitment of new PSW’s and coordination with community colleges to ensure properly qualified people are available to meet the needs in future.