Despite the Ford government’s recent attempts to increase standards of care in Ontario’s long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, a co-chair of Pioneer Manor’s Family Council said that while it’s nice, it’s too little too late.
“The announcement about increasing personal care to four hours per day is great,” said Terry Martyn, who also sits on Ontario’s Northeast Family Council Network. ”But it’s all of the other details around it that make absolutely no sense.
“Nothing will come into effect for another four to five years. That’s not good enough. Residents need more care right now.”
On Nov. 2, Ford announced that the provincial government would provide additional funding in the 2020 budget to increase average daily direct care from 2.75 to four hours per resident by 2024-25 in a move that was met with both praise and criticism.
“This is a bold step on a big issue,” said Lisa Levin, CEO of AdvantAge Ontario, a non-profit association that represents more than 36,000 long-term care residents and more than 8,000 seniors in housing units across the province.
“Almost without exception, any report or study looking at the challenges in providing safe, quality care to seniors living in long-term care has pointed to the need for more staff. There is absolutely nothing that could have a more direct and positive impact on the quality and enjoyment of life for residents than more staff.”
The Ontario Health Coalition (OHC), which has been advocating for increased standards of care for more than 20 years, would like to see something more substantial.
“We are happy that the minimum care standard is finally, belatedly, adopted as policy, but we cannot allow this to be the way that this government tries to shut down the legitimate criticism about their inadequate response,” said executive director Natalie Mehra.
“We desperately need staff in the homes now. It is in this government’s power to do more. Why will they not do it?”
The province has also announced it is launching a new recruitment program called the Ontario Workforce Reserve for Senior Support that would train and deploy resident support aides (RSA) to work in long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The province is hoping that those who are unemployed or have been displaced from the retail and hospitality industries or administrative roles as well as students in education programs will take advantage of the opportunity.
“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, but it will also help out our frontline staff and greatly improve the quality of life for our seniors.”
But while it seems that the provincial government has finally heard the voices calling for change, Martyn still isn’t impressed.
“RSAs do not help get residents up in the morning, dressed, and bathed – that’s the direct care that we need, and only PSWs do that,” he said.
He doesn’t believe that the government’s actions address the real need for a concrete recruitment plan to hire more PSWs in Ontario – and he’s not alone.
“The NDP, alongside families, front-line workers, and experts, have been fighting (to increase personal care standards) for literally years, including introducing the bill that would make it the law in Ontario four times since 2016,” said MPP Teresa Armstrong, the NDP critic of long-term care.
“Prior to the pandemic, we all heard heartbreaking stories of seniors dehydrated, injured without explanation, left to develop bedsores, and not being given the time or the help to eat, dress themselves, bathe or even get to the bathroom. A revolving door of underpaid, part-time workers, like PSWs, have been run off their feet for years.”
Since the pandemic started, conditions in long-term care facilities seem to have gotten worse,, critics say.
The Service Employees International Union estimated that nearly 30 per cent or 7,500 of the nurses and PSWs they represent left their jobs since the start of the pandemic.
Martyn added that adequate, full-time work as a PSW is difficult to come by – many PSWs work multiple part-time gigs at more than one long-term care home, something that increases the possibility of spreading COVID-19.
Dot Klein, the co-chair of the Sudbury Health Coalition, said that almost 2,000 long-term care residents and staff died during the first wave of the virus this year.
According to Ontario’s Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission, 55 per cent of the province’s long-term care facilities experienced an outbreak of the virus during the first wave, and about 75 per cent of all COVID-related deaths in Ontario were in long-term care.
“Some common characteristics among the most impacted homes were: location in communities with high infection rates, insufficient leadership capacity, pre-existing and COVID-related staffing shortages, and a lack of strong infection prevention and control measures, including difficulty cohorting and isolating positive residents, often because of limitations of the physical environment,” said a letter written by the Commission on Oct. 23.
The letter was addressed to Minister Fullerton, and it outlined five recommendations for the provincial government to follow to prepare for the second wave of COVID-19 this fall.
The first item on that list is increasing the supply of PSWs and ensuring that recruitment efforts address the need for various staff to meet the increasingly complex needs of residents.
“The issue with staffing shortages is the same everywhere in Ontario. Long-term care homes are funded by the Ontario government depending on how many residents they have and what kind of care they need,” said Martyn.
“They are given a certain level of funding to hire PSWs, and that’s it. They cannot hire more PSWs above that number unless they have excess money or profits in the bank. It’s impossible to do that.”
The Ontario government announced $405 million in funding for the province’s long-term care homes to help with operating pressures due to COVID-19 in late September.
The funding can be used for infection prevention and containment measures, staffing supports, and purchasing additional supplies and PPE.
The government also announced that it would extend the $3 per hour pay raise for PSWs until March 2021.
“The bottom line is that the Ford government’s approach is piecemeal, does not include a robust recruitment strategy, and does not address the longstanding problems in working conditions,” said the OHC.
“The Ford government’s approach is far less and far later than the program launched by the government of Quebec four months ago in which the province itself drove recruitment, hiring 10,000 PSWs (the Quebec equivalent), paying them for training and providing a wage of $26 per hour.”
Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at the Sudbury Star. The Local Journalism Initiative is a federal program to support local journalism.