TORONTO — Hundreds of Ontario workers in hospitals and long-term care could be off the job in the coming weeks because they did not get vaccinated against COVID-19, further complicating what advocates call a “perfect storm” of staff shortages.
The president of a union representing workers in long-term care, hospitals and retirement homes said the staffing problem, driven by low wages, lack of full-time jobs and poor work conditions, predates the pandemic, and vaccine mandates will likely add to it.
"It'll have an impact on staffing levels that are already at a critical point," Sharleen Stewart of SEIU Healthcare said in an interview. "It's kind of stirred up the perfect storm now."
A deadline of Nov. 15 has been set for Ontario long-term care staff to get immunized or lose access to their workplaces. It's up to the homes what happens after that, but many operators had already set dates to place unvaccinated people on leave, citing the devastating impact of COVID-19 and the risk of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's top doctor, said Ontario is watching closely for the "unintended consequence" of staff shortages related to vaccine mandates but maintained that they are necessary in some jobs to protect the vulnerable.
A spokeswoman for the long-term care minister said the ministry will work with homes to provide supports if necessary.
SEIU Healthcare is among those calling for the policy to apply across the health system over concerns that unvaccinated long-term care workers may jump to related fields.
Stewart also argued that without improving conditions in long-term care, unvaccinated workers -- who are contending with heavy workloads, low staffing levels, low wages and precarious work arrangements -- have no incentive to overcome their hesitancy in order to keep their jobs.
"They're thinking, is it worth staying here," she said.
Ontario has not followed Quebec's lead in mandating immunization for all health-care workers. But many hospitals have implemented their own hardline policies. Deadlines for workers to show proof of their shots or face unpaid leave -- or termination -- are now looming.
A hospital in Windsor, Ont., announced last week that it had fired 57 people who didn't get vaccinated by a set deadline. A group of hospitals in the Waterloo, Ont., area has given staff until next Tuesday to get vaccinated or be placed on leave. Grand River Hospital in Kitchener said Friday that 93 per cent of staff were vaccinated ahead of the deadline, and acknowledged the possible disruptions to come.
“We also recognize that there may be an impact on selected services and wait times and will do everything we can to ensure that we are mitigating that impact," CEO Ron Gagnon said in a statement.
University Health Network, which is reporting a 97 per cent vaccination rate, has given employees at the Toronto hospital network until Oct. 22 to get vaccinated or lose their jobs.
The head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said the health staff shortage is "a crisis of mega proportions" that's largely unrelated to vaccine resistance. But Doris Grinspun argued that the impact of vaccine mandates could be mitigated if the province applied the policy across the entire health system.
"People need to work," Grinspun said in an interview. "How many will leave if it's across the the whole system? Where are they going to go?"
Unions and workplaces are still working with unvaccinated staff to overcome their hesitancy.
One Toronto long-term care home recently lost 36 per cent of its staff to unpaid leave because they didn't get vaccinated.
Twenty-two Copernicus Lodge residents died from COVID-19 in earlier outbreaks. A spokeswoman for the Toronto home that serves Polish immigrants said avoiding more deaths was a motivating factor to get the mandatory vaccination policy out early in September
Marla Antia said the home was also concerned about losing a significant number of staff to illness if vaccination rates remained low when the fourth wave hit.
Since going on leave, Antia said 32 of the 111 affected workers have since reported getting at least one vaccine dose.
The home is planning to continue running vaccination clinics to accommodate people changing their minds, and has not yet decided what will happen with those who remain non-compliant after the final deadline.
"We've seen the needle move a little bit, so that gives us hope," Marla Antia said in an interview. "We'd love to have everyone back."
Carla Sleep said the vaccine mandate has offered peace of mind as a worker and with her mother living in a long-term care home.
"It does make me feel more comfortable that it is going to be a standard," she said.
Sleep's workplace hasn't had a major issue with vaccine hesitancy, but she noted that understaffing has worsened since she started as a personal support worker nearly two decades ago. She said it's an issue that must be dealt with.
Turnover is on the rise among even the vaccinated new hires Sleep works with and chronic understaffing has left her and other colleagues discouraged.
"This is going to be the hard part," she said. "Unless you have good wages and people are trained properly and we get the right workforce in there, it's not going to change."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 10, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press