Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative
Chatham-Kent is no exception when it comes to the problems facing long-term care homes.
The situation in private long-term care and residential homes is not good, said one worker fed up with working conditions.
One personal support worker (PSW), with several decades of experience in the private long-term care industry, spoke to The Chatham Voice on the condition their name not be published.
Two PSWs work the floor for 40 people who need constant care. From bed to breakfast, they only have two hours to get everyone up in the morning.
They help their residents dress, give them a shave and make sure their mouth care is satisfactory.
Then they assemble all the walking devices and help feed those with mobility issues. Some residents require extra love and attention because they are having difficulty understanding why their family and friends are not coming to visit them.
Usually there are four staff members on the floor, but many have been taking time off work during the pandemic to self-isolate after travel or at the first sign of a cold. Yet new residents continue to come in with nowhere to isolate them.
In one facility, there are only four private rooms and the rest are all doubles. So the caregiver will try to draw the curtains, but she does not know if that is good enough to protect the vulnerable.
To her work’s credit, there is extra housekeeping supplied to sanitize surfaces constantly.
Workers are either writing their daily reports on each resident over lunch, or after work. This allows them to spend their time on the clock concentrating on proper care for their patients, but leaves them with very little personal time.
“Instead of bullying people to get all the work done, maybe management should start thinking outside the box to help,” the unnamed PSW said.
She added that management is not listening to their concerns, but there is also not much they could do about it if they tried. Some are bringing in private companies to help out but even they find themselves short staffed.
“Residents need more people there. We should all be a team, the whole place, and management should put on a pair of running shoes and start moving residents around with us and feeding them.”
When the PSW was ready for a day off after working 10 straight shifts, she noticed only two of her coworkers were on the floor the next day. So she sacrificed her time off to come in with an assist.
“I could not consciously not go in. So I showed up to help; the guilt is coming in.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently announced that frontline workers are to receive a $4 per hour raise during the next four months. Employees working more than 100 hours per month would receive an additional payment of $250 per month during the same time period.
In total, employees working full time would receive $3,560 in additional compensation. Around 350,000 workers are expected to benefit from pandemic payment across the province.
“These people put themselves in harm’s way to care for our sick and vulnerable citizens,” Ford said when he made the announcement on April 25. “I am truly grateful, as are the people of Ontario, for their service, and it’s time we give something back to those who sacrifice so much day in and day out.”
Shirley Roebuck, co-chair of CK Health Coalition, said that although the provincial government’s actions to increase wages for long-term care workers is positive, wages were low long before COVID-19, causing PSWs to work at multiple sites to pay their bills.
CK Health Coalition is a local non-profit under the umbrella of the Ontario Health Coalition. Their mandate is to fight against the privatization of long-term care homes.
The PSW also said that working conditions are not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus attacked a system that was flawed to begin with, and the effects are just being amplified.
Roebuck and the PSW worker said full-time work is not easy to come by for PSWs and every shift in Chatham-Kent is worked on a short-handed basis. One PSW has been known to work alone on a night shift with 20 residents to care for.
Roebuck added that there is also a lack of education in dealing with difficult residents or those suffering from dementia.
She applauded Riverview Gardens, the only municipally run facility in Chatham-Kent, who gave full-time hours to all of its PSWs during the crisis and brought on auxiliary workers to help clean or cook.
“In Chatham-Kent, I have only kudos to give to the municipal nursing home and Public Health folks. In Chatham-Kent there have been no outbreaks of COVID-19 (in long-term care). They’re doing a really good job,” she said.
Last year, OHC held province-wide round tables to hear PSWs and nursing home administrators concerns. They later released a report titled Crisis in Care with recommendations on action that could be taken.
Some of the recommendations made by the OHC are to stop booking PSWs on a part-time basis and create full-time jobs by reducing the number of residents per workers. Many workers wait up to 10 years for full-time hours and do not have any health benefits of their own.
“Who would want to do that job? PSWs are left with the heavy dredge work of lifting and cleaning and getting people up and feeding them. It’s hard physical labour and very little time to spend talking to residents,” Roebuck said.
The staffing mix in long-term care homes is dictated by the nature of the required 24 hours a day, 7 days a week care, said Judy Irwin, senior manager for Ontario Long Term Care Association. There are strict requirements under the legislation for staffing plans, and collective agreements prohibit them from moving staff around to cover these gaps.
“Scheduling requirements mean a significant use of part-time staff to create reasonable schedules for full-time employees covered under collective bargaining. If homes are short on staffing due to staff vacancies, absences, or last-minute illnesses, they turn to part-time staff to fill the gaps, and if they aren’t available, then agencies,” she said.
The Chatham-Kent PSW added that new employees have been quickly opting out of their jobs, and feels that private homes will have a serious shortage once the old-time staff retire.
In Chatham-Kent’s private homes, PSW’s allegedly make around $20 per hour and licensed practical nurses are paid $27.
Roebuck said she believes all homes should be government run.
“These long-standing problems originated in private, for-profit homes; there is no place for profit making in the long-term system.”
Karen Herman, chair of the municipality’s age-friendly committee and the senior advisory committee, said from a local governance standpoint there is not much Chatham-Kent can do, as legislation has to come from the province and federal government.
She did point out there are still governing rules no matter if a facility was private or public. “And so I truly believe, all 600 or so homes in Ontario, have equally a need for improvement whether a publicly or privately owned one.”
Larry Roberts, senior manager of Corporate Affairs for Revera, said the issues present are sector specific and not specific to ownership structure.
“We do want to say that we are very proud of the tireless, fearless work our front line care providers are doing to protect our residents, themselves and their colleagues, from this unprecedented pandemic,” he said.
Irwin said there are currently new measures possible under the emergency order during COVID-19 that the association believes should continue after the pandemic. The government is now allowing homes to hire different positions such as resident care aides which is giving nurses and PSWs more time to focus on direct care.
The PSW working in Chatham-Kent is hopeful that maybe now everyone will be listening more closely and pick up the pace when it comes to making long-term changes in long-term care homes.
“I think it took COVID for people to realize what we were really feeling in long-term care and retirement. I think they finally realize we’re failing these people. We’re failing the elderly.’”
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