On July 30, 2020, the Ontario government quietly released a study on staffing in long-term care. The government-initiated report recognizes "the critical importance of staffing in long-term care homes" and says the government must "urgently address the staffing crisis in long-term care, make long-term care homes a better place to live and work, implement staffing approaches that reflect and respond to the complexity of the sector and diverse resident needs."
The study was produced in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which to date has killed more than 1,800 seniors in long-term care homes in Ontario and more than 9,000 across Canada, according to data compiled by independent journalist Nora Loreto.
COVID-19 outbreaks continue to this day, the most recent being in Ottawa's West End Villa where more than 60 people have contracted the disease and 11 people have died. Ottawa Public Health recently ordered that the Ottawa Hospital take over management of the home, along with another home owned by the for-profit Extendicare corporation to try to contain the recent outbreaks.
Staffing shortages have been cited as a key contributor to the high number of deaths in long-term care homes – it's a crisis that was identified long before COVID-19 emerged in Canada.
With so many lives lost and more in the balance as a second wave of COVID-19 looms, the health and safety of residents and workers in long-term care should be a top priority issue for the Ford government – but it's not.
Earlier this week, three unions – CUPE, SEIU and Unifor – representing long-term care workers held a press conference asking why the Ford government has failed to act on its own report. Almost two months have passed, and the staffing crisis continues.
Keep in mind that the Ford government also launched a "public commission" into the tragic deaths in long-term care. Only it isn't very public as no dates for public hearings have been set or even talked about.
Personal support workers (PSWs) at the press conference spoke of the stress of their jobs – stress that has been there for many years – of not having enough time to properly care for residents and constantly feeling rushed. Now they have they added fears of residents dying, of contracting COVID-19 themselves and infecting others, including their families at home. As a result, many are leaving these often part-time precarious positions.
To control infection, measures such as frequent handwashing and changing personal protective equipment (if any was supplied) were added into their already impossible workloads. The workers spoke of the fear of reprisal from their employers many of them have about speaking out.
Terrifying working conditions
Jen Cloutier, a PSW who works in a long-term care home in Windsor, fought back tears as she spoke about her working conditions.
"To work through the pandemic is terrifying... is exhausting... is emotional. And to go to work every day to see your residents dying? It's a horrible way to work," she said. "We were as little as three to four staff in a four-hour period. How do you keep residents alive with three to four staff when I've worked a 20-hour shift and I don't even have time to get hydration or nutrition for myself? Mental breakdowns, depression, vomiting in cars and locker rooms happen daily in my (long-term care) home, and I'm sure in many other homes."
A coalition of long-term care stakeholders recently wrote to Premier Ford warning they are not equipped to handle a second wave of COVID-19. Since June, they have asked the province for help addressing the staffing shortages and infection prevention and control deficiencies in homes – but nothing has been done.
The Ford government has been called on by long-term care workers, by the families of those living in long-term care, by the millitary, and even by its own appointed study working group to act urgently but has failed to do so.
Thankfully there is a glimmer of hope.
In yesterday's throne speech, the Trudeau government acknowledged that "one of the greatest tragedies of this pandemic is the lives lost in long-term care homes. Elders deserve to be safe, respected, and live in dignity."
The Trudeau government pledged to work with provinces and territories and to "explicitly penalize those who neglect seniors under their care, putting them in danger."
Most importantly, it promised to "work with the provinces and territories to set new, national standards for long-term care so that seniors get the best support possible" and "will look at further targeted measures for personal support workers, who do an essential service helping the most vulnerable in our communities. Canada must better value their work and their contributions to our society."
Those new national standards for long-term care should mean a minimum of four hours of care per resident. We also need a mechanism that removes the profit motives from long-term care, especially when the evidence shows that people are more likely to contract COVID-19 and die from it in for-profit homes.
We must work together from coast-to-coast-to-coast to improve long-term care for everyone. This is a national crisis that needs our national attention. Now it's up to all of us to hold the Trudeau government to its promises.
On Monday, September 28 Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced his government will spend $52.5 million to add 3,700 workers at its hospitals and long-term care homes. He made the announcement after confirming the province is in a second wave of COVID-19. The government is offering signing bonuses to 2,000 workers if they commit to work in the long-term care system for the next six months. (Which begs the question about bonuses for workers already working in long-term care...) In a tweet, Premier Ford proclaimed, “We need more PSWs!”
Yes, Premier Ford, that’s what your government study told you two months ago. That’s what long-term care workers have been saying loudly for years – long before COVID-19 emerged in Canada. That’s what the military confirmed when they went into homes last May.
Why didn’t you listen to any of them?
Keep up the pressure and sign the Council's petition calling on the federal government to bring homes into public hands, provide a coordinated seniors' care strategy to be implemented in all provinces and territories, and ensure all long-term care workers have all the support, tools and equipment they need.