As the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Canada’s long-term care homes in the spring of 2020, more than 500 workers from one of the country’s largest operators stopped showing up for work.
Revera, which operates more than 500 nursing homes in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, saw 266 resident deaths at its Canadian long-term care homes during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The company has drawn criticism for its handling of the pandemic across the country, including in Manitoba, where two of the company’s homes have a combined total of 81 deaths during the second wave. Revera is a wholly owned subsidiary of the federal Public Sector Pension Investment Board and has faced calls to be taken public amid the pandemic.
WATCH: Long-term care residents, health-care workers to be among first to be vaccinated in Canada. Story continues below.
Even in homes without COVID-19 outbreaks, “workers offered no explanation for their absences” and did not respond to the company’s efforts to reach them, Revera’s report said.
Fear likely played a “significant role” in staff absences, in addition to other reasons like the single-site staffing order, sick leaves, quarantine orders, pregnancy or parental leaves, needing to provide child-care and concerns about spreading the virus to vulnerable family members.
“In the context of COVID-19, long term care homes quickly became high-risk environments,” the report states, pointing to the deaths of three personal support workers (PSWs) in Ontario in less than three weeks.
“It is not a stretch to imagine that fear kept many frontline care providers from going to work.”
Revera has kept those people on its employee roster and has not taken any punitive measures, according to the report.
The Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) may have also been a disincentive for staff from working or caused people to not apply for the part-time positions available, the report suggests. The benefit paid out $2,000 per month or $500 per week, “slightly more” than a part-time employee in long-term care would make for working three days in a week.
The report states that Revera dealt with the staff absences by giving more hours to part-time workers, but the absences created a “desperate scramble” to find staff to fill the “growing gaps.”
It cites “failed attempts” to recruit PSWs who were available because they weren’t working in home care as they were before the pandemic, as these workers couldn’t be directed to work at a long-term care home by their employers.
Some PSWs — not only from Revera’s homes — have spoken out about the difficulties of working through the pandemic.
“To go to work every day to see your residents die, is a horrible way to work,” PSW Jennifer Cloutier said at a press conference focused on the staffing crisis in September.
“We were living below poverty as it was … and by doing one job, we’re basically sinking further in[to] poverty,” said another PSW, Kelly Stephenson, referencing the government order that required long-term care workers to only work at one facility to slow the spread of the virus.
“We’re tired of being called heroes and angels and not being treated as such,” Stephenson said.
Permanent pay increases needed: experts
Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare union, which represents Revera staff in retirement and long-term care homes, told HuffPost nursing home staff feel “disregarded” and “disheartened” that the issues they’ve been raising alarm bells on for decades haven’t improved.
“They’re feeling like it is just not worth risking their lives and the lives of their family members, when a lot of promises have been made verbally, but action has not been seen on the ground.”
A survey by the union toward the end of the first wave found 30 per cent of its members were not returning to work — a figure Stewart called “extremely concerning.”
The most pressing change, she said, is for workers to be given a decent, living wage with benefits.
Without improvements, long-term care workers — predominantly women, Stewart noted — will choose to work elsewhere, instead of working double shifts at short-staffed nursing homes when they’re already burned out.
“Of course these workers would make the very practical and sane decision not to risk their lives ...”
Expert and advocate Vivian Stamatopoulos echoed concerns that the eight per cent number seems low.
She questioned whether the figure only refers to staff hired by Revera or if it also includes agency workers, whom she said are not prohibited by the single-site staffing order and could be contributing to “exploding outbreaks” in care homes.
A Revera spokesperson did not return HuffPost’s request for comment Monday.
“Of course these workers would make the very practical and sane decision not to risk their lives in potentially dangerous working conditions,” Stamatopoulos said. “Of course they would make the decision to take the CERB, instead of to be paid marginally over minimum wage to risk their lives, their families lives and residents’ lives.”
If Revera did not permanently increase staff wages to reflect the difficulty of the work, “then they didn’t learn anything,” she said.
Ontario’s temporary wage top-up of $3-per-hour for eligible long-term care workers isn’t enough of an incentive to keep people working in the sector, she said.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Long-Term Care said the purpose of the wage increases is to support the retention of staff and increase the supply of workers.
“The province will closely monitor this program across multiple settings to assess the impact of the proposed wage increases on service levels, recruitment, retention and overall supply,” the spokesperson said.
To address the “revolving door” of workers in long-term care, operators also need to proactively mandate 4.1 hours of direct care per resident per day — something the Ontario government has committed to achieving by 2024-25 — and implement better staffing ratios and make permanent pay increases, Stamatopoulos added.
The Ontario government gave $540 million for the long-term care sector to handle the second wave of the pandemic, including funds for staffing support.
The Ministry of Long-Term Care is also developing a comprehensive staffing strategy that will be delivered by the end of the year, the spokesperson said.