During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jennifer Cloutier, a personal support worker (PSW), lived in a trailer outside her long-term care home to prevent spreading the virus to her family.
Her job involved putting deceased residents into body bags. She worked up to 20 hours some days. From March 14, the day after Ontario closed schools, to April 26, she didn’t get a day off.
“To work through the pandemic was terrifying, was exhausting [and] was emotional,” Cloutier said through tears at a Monday press conference. “To go to work every day to see your residents die, is a horrible way to work.”
Her long-term care home sometimes had as few as three or four staff members for a 24-hour period, she said. Staff at the home had breakdowns, experienced depression and vomited in their cars and in the home’s locker room.
WATCH: Ford warns care homes to let staff access PPE. Story continues below.
“This is a sector that is in a crisis and the government needs to step up and get us adequate staffing [and] get us realistic ratios to keep these residents alive and healthy and [give them] the care that they deserve,” Cloutier said.
As increasing cases in Ontario point to a second wave of the deadly virus, PSWs and union leaders urged the province to take steps to improve staffing in long-term care homes at a joint press conference Monday morning.
In Ontario, 1,859 residents and eight staff members have died of COVID-19, according to provincial data.
Staffing study, private member’s bill offer next steps
Ontario released a staffing study in July that concluded the province must “urgently address the staffing crisis in long-term care.” The study was a response to the inquiry that investigated former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer murdering eight seniors.
It gave five recommendations, including to give more funding to increase the number of staff working in long-term care and to improve work conditions — including better compensation — to retain staff.
Katha Fortier, assistant to the national president of Unifor, noted that whenever Premier Doug Ford is asked about PSWs he calls them heroes and says they should have better working conditions and pay.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s ministry of long-term care said the province has “taken significant action” to address staffing, including committing $243 million in emergency funding for staffing, supplies, and capacity. For homes with critical staffing shortages, the province has also allowed hospitals to send in health professionals to help.
The spokesperson said the government understands the importance of proper staffing and the challenges in recruiting and retaining staff in long-term care. It will develop a “comprehensive staffing strategy” for the long-term care sector by the end of the year and, prior to the pandemic, was working on a strategy to improve retention of PSWs.
Ontario’s staffing study also found approximately 40 per cent of PSWs have left the health-care sector after graduating or within one year of training. Staff in part-time jobs, predominantly entry-level personal support workers, have the highest turnover, the study states.
Fortier said, without the ability to retain staff, long-term care homes have become a “revolving door” for staff.
The crisis in long-term care is even worse now, Fortier said, as there are fewer staff than before and those who remain have already worked through heartbreaking conditions and serious outbreaks.
“Clearly we have learned nothing from the first wave of this virus ...”
Candace Rennick, secretary-treasurer of Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario, noted there is currently a private member’s bill in the Ontario legislature that would increase the hours of care a resident receives each day to four — also a recommendation from the province’s staffing study.
“If the government is serious about staffing in this province, they could make this law this week,” she said.
Government ‘refuses to act’: Union leader
Rennick also said that staff are still being denied access to N95 masks at the West End Villa in Ottawa, a home with an outbreak where 11 residents have died of COVID-19 and there have been 50 confirmed cases in residents and 27 in staff.
“Clearly we have learned nothing from the first wave of this virus and residents and staff are at risk of losing their lives,” Rennick said. “It is unconscionable and completely unacceptable.”
In question period Monday morning, Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said the home has the personal protective equipment it needs, including N95 masks that are available to staff. A ministry spokesperson echoed this and said the Ottawa Hospital has been overseeing infection prevention and control measures at the home.
Sharleen Stewart, president of Service Employees International Union Healthcare, said as big operators paid out millions in dividends to shareholders, some PSWs can’t pay rent and fear losing their homes.
She said since a May 2019 press conference where she and a PSW spoke at Queen’s Park to speak about staffing levels and conditions in long-term care, the government “refuses to act” on the issue.
“I stand here to again sound the alarm bells to tell the public that Ontario’s nursing homes are in worse shape today, just as the second wave of COVID is upon us,” Stewart said. “We have no time to spare.”
Personal support workers call for action
Another PSW, Florence Mwangi, said staff at the long-term care home where she works were constantly praying or in tears.
Staff in long-term care already face a heavy workload without the added pressures of the pandemic, she said.
“That’s why we came here today to ask [the] premier and all the MPPs [for] action,” Mwangi said. “No more promises, but actions.”
Kelly Stephenson, who is also a PSW, called for the province to address low staffing levels and low wages. She noted that pandemic pay, a temporary program that gave some front-line workers an extra $4 per hour, ended in August, leaving some PSWs financially struggling.
A PSW previously told HuffPost a starting wage for people in her job is about $18 an hour.
Ontario has claimed the full amount of federal funding for the temporary pandemic pay program, according to the press secretary for Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of Ontario’s Treasury Board.
Over 375,000 front-line workers received the funding, Sebastian Skamski said. He added the province will continue to work with its partners, including the federal government, to ensure the safety of Ontarians.
“You told us to choose one job,” Stephenson said, referencing the Ontario government’s April directive for long-term care staff to limit their work to one home to prevent potentially spreading the virus between facilities.
“We were living below poverty as it was … and by doing one job, we’re basically sinking further in[to] poverty,” she said.
“We’re tired of being called heroes and angels and not being treated as such.”