In a paper sent on Nov. 3 to Health Minister Christine Elliott and Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton, OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas says the only way to fix long-term care is to give Personal Support Workers the respect and treatment they deserve.
“As you seek solutions and new ways forward, I urge you to focus a significant amount of your attention on the workers who are the system’s heart, soul, and backbone: Personal Support Workers (PSWs),” Thomas wrote to the two ministers.
“In the paper attached, OPSEU/SEFPO members in long-term care assert that the problems in the sector can be largely traced back to the lack of respect paid to PSWs,” Thomas wrote. “Low wages, meagre benefits, and precarious working conditions have all led to the extreme staffing shortages and retention problems plaguing long-term care.
“In short: improve the lot of PSWs, and you’ll dramatically improve the long-term care they can offer.”
Below, you’ll find the letter Thomas wrote to Elliott and Fullerton. Below the letter, you’ll find the text of the OPSEU/SEFPO paper — called “Improving Ontario’s Long-Term Care means significant investment in our Personal Support Workers” — or click here for a PDF,
November 3, 2020
Hon. Christine Elliott
Deputy Premier and Minister of Health
777 Bay St., 5th Floor
Toronto, ON, M7A 2J3
Hon. Merrilee Fullerton
Minister of Long-Term Care
400 University Ave.
Toronto, ON, M7A 1T7
Dear Ministers Elliott and Fullerton,
I have no doubt you and your ministries are working tirelessly to make our long-term care system safer and healthier for all residents and staff. As we are all painfully aware, the pandemic had made clear that our current system is broken, dangerous, and in need of significant investment and reform.
As you seek solutions and new ways forward, I urge you to focus a significant amount of your attention on the workers who are the system’s heart, soul, and backbone: Personal Support Workers (PSWs).
In the short paper attached, OPSEU/SEFPO members in long-term care assert that the problems in the sector can be largely traced back to the lack of respect paid to PSWs. Low wages, meagre benefits, and precarious working conditions have all led to the extreme staffing shortages and retention problems plaguing long-term care.
In short: improve the lot of PSWs, and you’ll dramatically improve the long-term care they can offer.
I hope you’ll read this paper, and I look forward to hearing your responses.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
Improving Ontario’s Long-Term Care means significant investment in our Personal Support Workers
November 2, 2020
Improving Ontario’s Long-Term Care means significant investment in our Personal Support Workers
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed one of Ontario’s deepest shames: a refusal by decades of successive governments to properly invest in the trained Personal Support Workers (PSWs) needed to properly care for our province’s seniors.
These seniors aren’t just numbers of a balance sheet. They are our parents and grandparents. They worked hard all of their lives to build Ontario into the richest and most prosperous province in the country.
Every day, we reap the rewards of their blood, sweat, and tears. And yet instead of gratitude and dignity, we have offered them only empty platitudes and a grim existence of neglect.
Thankfully, the pandemic seems to be forcing political leaders to finally acknowledge the truth.
As this paper is being written, the current government is pledging to support an Opposition bill that will set a minimum standard that seniors in long-term care receive at least four hours of hands-on care per day. To ensure this standard is met, government is promising to release a plan within a month to ensure staffing levels required to meet this standard.
These are promising steps. But on their own, they are far from enough.
The problems in long-term care are severe, but they are not complicated. They boil down to this: too few people being asked to do too much with too little.
The solution to this problem is not complicated, either. Our long-term care system needs not just more workers who are properly trained, properly supported, properly protected, and properly compensated for the vital labour they perform.
Current conditions for PSWs
For PSWs in long-term care, the current working conditions are – in a word – deplorable.
They are overworked. They are underpaid. And they are terribly overburdened trying to hold together a system that is crumbling around them.
PSWs choose their field of work because they are driven to help people – they care. But as the population grows older and seniors’ health problems become more complex, the challenges PSWs face are rising.
Everyday Canadians might have been shocked by the reports coming from the military when they were sent in on their unprecedented “rescue mission” on our own soil, but they shouldn’t have been.
PSWs in OPSEU/SEFPO and many other unions have been trying to raise the alarm for years about the conditions they face inside the homes where they work. Too few staff. Too few supplies. And for those working in privately owned homes, far too much priority put on cutting corners in order to boost profits.
These problems are long-standing and serious. But the pandemic has thrown them into sharp and tragic relief.
As this paper is being written, more than 70 long-term care homes across the province are in the midst of outbreak, adding daily to tragic death toll that has already claimed more than 3,000 lives.
Burn-out is rising sharply. And recruitment had never been more difficult. The workforce is already unstable: an estimated annual attrition rate of 25 per cent of PSWs leaving their jobs and a 40-per-cent attrition rate from graduation to PSW practice.
Our fundamental approach to long-term care and the PSWs who provide has to change. And it has to change now.
The keys to change
Band-aid solutions were never enough in long-term care, and they are now wholly inadequate.
No longer can government treat PSWs and the work they do as low-wage “cannon fodder” in the battle against rising need and rising acuity.
Simply throwing more bodies at the problem is simply not good enough.
The troubling trend with long-term care employers of creating low-waged “assistant” positions will not only fail, it will make a bad situation even worse. Damaging employment churn will only increase, and our already overburdened PSWs will be forced to take on the additional responsibilities of on-the-job training, management, and oversight of these assistants.
Our province needs a commitment from government to properly staff all of our long-term care homes with PSWs who have the training and the support they need to provide decent and dignified care.
A professional oversight body for PSWs must be established immediately to develop and enforce minimum standards for workers and employers alike.
These standards must be then be used as the basis for the development by our community colleges – in consultation with current PSWs and their unions — of accelerated education and certification programs.
This is a key component of improving standards. Without training and certification, all other attempts to improve long-term care will fail.
In order to address the critical issues of staffing shortages and burn-out, government must help pave the way for widespread enrolment in these accelerated PSW training programs by establishing full tuition assistance for all students.
This tuition assistance must be broadly and actively promoted, particularly within all of Ontario’s communities. An effective corps of PSWs must reflect Ontario’s culturally rich and diverse society.
Lastly, government must commit to ensuring that currently working PSWs are not in any way penalized by new standards and certification requirements. They know the work because they’ve been doing it – sometimes for decades. Their hard-won experience must be recognized and valued as much as any new PSWs’ training and certification.
Those who have been doing the job without proper certification must be maintained by applying prior learning and grandfathering until agreed-upon credentials are attained.
Finally, and as part of the continuum of care, immediate investments in home care must be made so that seniors have the choice and the support to remain in their own homes for as long as possible.
Higher standards for wages and benefits
Just as government must commit to establishing higher standards of care for PSWs, it must also commit to establishing higher standards of treatment and compensation for PSWs.
The low-wage, part-time, and precarious-work approach of many long-term care employers – particularly in the private sector – is a failed experiment that needs to end immediately.
A wage floor must be established for all PSWs. And employers must be encouraged – and even forced if necessary – to rebalance its mix of part-time and full-time positions. Any PSWs that want to work full-time, particularly in a single facility, must have a reasonable chance of finding that work.
A crucial first-step towards achieving higher wages and working conditions for PSWs is end immediately the role of the private corporations in this sector.
Media analysis of COVID-19 in Ontario’s have drawn clear lines between the private sector and dangerously inadequate care. Private sector homes with lower wages and fewer staff have suffered much more frequent outbreaks and higher death-tolls than homes owned and managed by municipalities and other non-profit organizations.
It’s all too clear that corporations have boosted their profits by reducing their labour costs. And it’s all too clear that those decisions have had tragic consequences.
Ontarians understand that there should be no place for profiteering in our health care system. It is no different in long-term care – the entire system must be brought back under public ownership and control immediately.
Investment in PSWs required, and desired
Improving our long-term care system means increasing the respect with which we treat Personal Support Workers.
In no uncertain terms, that means increasing our investment in the wages and working conditions of current PSWs, and also in the training and certification of future PSWs.
These investments will not be insignificant. But Ontarians understand that these investments pales in comparison to the costs of allowing our long-term care system to continue failing us so badly.
A Nanos public opinion poll commissioned by OPSEU/SEFPO earlier this year found that Ontarians were practically unanimous in their demand that our seniors be treated better: fully 98 per cent said they want the government to focus on improving long-term care.
They recognize that these improvements will take investment. And it’s an investment they’re willing to make. More than 75 per cent said government should prioritize improving long-term care, while barely a quarter said it’s important to prioritize the deficit.
It’s time for governments to shed the old dogma and view the evidence made so tragically clear by the pandemic.
It’s time for government to invest in long-term care, and especially the PSWs who are its backbone.
Authorized for distribution by:
Warren (Smokey) Thomas,
Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida,
First Vice-President/Treasurer, OPSEU/SEFPO