Reports continue to pour in of COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care, assisted living and other seniors' care homes. More than 600 nursing and retirement homes across Canada have reported a rapidly growing number of COVID-19 infections, with Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia hardest hit so far.
Nora Loreto, a political writer and podcaster in Quebec, has been tracking where COVID-19 deaths are happening. She reveals that more than 80 per cent of the deaths have been in long-term care or other seniors' home – and that number continues to climb.
It has taken a tragedy of immense proportions to shine a spotlight on what workers in these homes have been saying for many years – the employment and working conditions leave seniors, and the workers themselves, at risk.
Mark Hancock, National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents more than 65,000 workers in long-term care homes, says this crisis has been many years in the making. "Staffing in long-term care has been at crisis levels for years. The industry thrives on providing part-time and precarious jobs for its employees, who are often forced to work in two or more homes just to make ends meet. This is especially true in private, for-profit homes that want to cut costs, like benefits and sick leave, in order to boost profits."
CCPA's Policy Note takes a closer look at the factors that contributed to the crisis in B.C. It's a pattern that exists across the country. The article notes that "our system has been weakened by policy decisions beginning in the early 2000s that reduced access and eligibility to publicly funded care, produced vulnerabilities and gaps that are impacting seniors and those who care for them, and encouraged profit-making through risky business practices such as subcontracting, which undermined working conditions and created staffing shortages."
Rationing of care
Andrew Longhurst with CCPA-BC and BC Health Coalition and Kendra Strauss, an assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University, go on to say that less funding over the past decade has had a significant impact. "Reduced funding for, and access to, publicly funded seniors' care from the early 2000s resulted in the rationing of care. Rationing means that access to publicly funded care is limited to those with more acute needs, leaving seniors with less complex needs without access to supports that might prevent deterioration and keep them from needing institutional care."
Provincial governments, who are responsible for long-term care facilities, are now scrambling to address the COVID-19 crisis unfolding in these homes. Ontario and Quebec have called in Canadian Armed Forces' medical personnel to help in the worst hit homes. Ontario also announced last week it will be topping up pay for all workers in long-term care and seniors' retirement homes, along with the pay of other frontline workers – a move that other provinces are being called on to follow.
B.C. acted more decisively – and earlier – to put measures in place. The government began by creating rules that restrict caregivers to working in only one home and provided enforcement powers to ensure this happens. The BC Officer of Health took control of staffing at all long-term care homes in the Vancouver area. They took care of these workers by topping up their pay to bring them on par with union wages and ensured they had access to full-time hours.
Workers and seniors in danger
Other workers are having to fight for support. The Toronto Star reports that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has applied to the Ontario Labour Relations Board seeking immediate relief to "'protect the lives of both employees and residents,' including an order to place the care homes under the direct control of the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care."
SEIU's application "contains allegations of numerous occupational health and safety concerns, including lack of transparency about COVID-19 infections, severe understaffing, and critical shortages of personal protective equipment at Altamont Care Community, Anson Place and Eatonville Care Centre, where some of the province's most severe outbreaks have unfolded."
A written declaration by SEIU's Chief Union Steward at Eatonville, a home where 36 seniors have already died, states workers were provided with almost no information about infections — and were critically understaffed.
"It is impossible to 'flatten the curve' at Eatonville when some staff and 50 per cent of the resident population is infected but we are not told who," the declaration says.
Fear of getting sick
Emily, a long-term care worker represented by Unifor, said she was scared going into work. "Walking into work, the anxiety that brings… I work around those that are most vulnerable fighting off fears that there is a real possibility that I could come in contact with COVID- 19 and the worst part of that fear is that I would being that home to my family," she said. Watch Unifor's video for "Safer Work, Better Care, Fair Pay for health care workers."
By mid-April Emily's worst fears came true when she tested positive for COVID-19. "Even with all the precautions I have taken I still came in contact with the virus," said the 39-year-old Ontario mother of two young girls, aged five and nine. "Every day I watch my two young daughters for symptoms, praying that I didn't infect them by giving them hugs and kisses."
Like thousands of long-term care workers and those who work in seniors' care, she is calling for changes.
"Everyone will need to take a long hard look at what our governments could have done to protect health care workers and the community at large. It's time for change in health care. Especially in long-term care," Emily said in her video message, shot while she was in isolation fighting the virus.
CUPE's National President agrees, "Ultimately, we need to recognize long-term care for what it is: health care. It needs to be properly funded, with clear and consistent standards across the country. The workers who take care of our seniors deserve proper pay and secure jobs, so that residents and workers alike can live in health, security and dignity," said Hancock.
Our governments have cut funding and allowed privatized care for seniors. Study after study has shown that privatization means less care. Allowing corporations whose primary interest is shareholder profits to be in control of care decisions for vulnerable seniors is wrong. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deep cracks in how we care for our elders that must be repaired.
Those of us with family members in seniors' homes, or with loved ones who work there, anxiously await these needed repairs. Seniors – and the workers who care for them – deserve better.