Advocates, union question new job category for Ontario long-term care homes

·4 min read

TORONTO — Long-term care advocates and unions are raising concerns about Ontario's plan to introduce a new job category to help with staffing shortages in long-term care homes, saying the new workers won't have the skills or training to deal with the complex needs of residents.

Premier Doug Ford's government launched a recruitment blitz earlier this week to attract people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic to work in long-term care homes.

The Advocacy Centre for the Elderly and Canadian Union of Public Employees say the new "resident support aides" will put both the workers and the vulnerable seniors they serve at risk.

Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said while homes are facing a staffing crisis, this is not the right solution.

"To bring in untrained workers without any knowledge of health care, without any knowledge of infection control, and sort of just releasing them into homes, I think it's going to be quite disastrous," she said. 

The Ministry of Long-Term Care said it is targeting retail and hospitality workers who may have lost their jobs during the pandemic and students to fill the new job class.

The government said the workers would help with recreational activities and during meal times, and co-ordinate residents' visits with family. They would not provide the same care as personal support workers or nurses in the home, it said.

Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified staffing challenges in the sector and the government needs to take urgent action to address the situation.

"I encourage those who are looking for new opportunities or those who have been displaced during the pandemic to consider working in a long-term care home," she said on Monday. "This will not only be personally satisfying work, it will help out our frontline staff and greatly improve the quality of life for our seniors."

But Meadus said the workers will only receive several hours of video training similar to that provided to families and essential visitors to homes.

In Ontario, personal support workers must graduate from a certified program at an Ontario college to attain their credential, a process than can take months.

The staffing shortages at the homes will inevitably mean that the aides are asked to help with duties that they are not qualified to perform, Meadus said.

"They are going to be pulled into these things because there's not enough hands around," she said. "A hand is better than none at all, but if they do it wrong they can get injured, and the person they're caring for can get injured."

The secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Union of Public Employees said the government plan is unfair to workers and long-term care residents.

Candace Rennick said about two-thirds of nursing home residents have been diagnosed with dementia and need trained staff to provide care.

Rennick said the workers will be paid less than personal support workers, who are already amongst the lowest paid in the sector, making retention difficult.

“The government’s continuing with cost-containment and shifting to a lower-classification of workers who are lower-paid, when we need to boost funding and invest in a skilled workforce,” she said.

The Progressive Conservative government has promised in recent months to address the staffing shortage in nursing homes and pledged to increase personal support worker wages temporarily.

It is expected to unveil a staffing plan next month that will help it achieve an average of four hours of daily care per resident by 2024-2025, but has not said how it will pay for the new standard.

Those spending details are not expected to be unveiled until next year's spring budget. 

The CEO of the Ontario Long-term Care Association said Tuesday that the new job classification has been requested by operators because it will help relieve the strain on other staff in the homes.

"(Resident support aides) are entry-level, and with additional education and in-home practical training, they represent an opportunity to eventually bring in new personal support workers who may not have considered the career beforehand just when we need them most," she said.

NDP long-term care critic Teresa Armstrong said what the sector needs are thousands of trained and well-paid workers. 

Currently, staff often have to take multiple jobs to make ends meet because they can't find a full-time job with benefits at the homes, she said. 

Armstrong accused the Ford government of trying to hire temporary minimum-wage employees with no training for front-line health-care jobs. 

"We need to make sure that the workers on the front lines taking care of vulnerable seniors have those skills," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press