A COVID-19 outbreak at an Ottawa homeless shelter last spring began when two women who were living there contracted the illness while working at long-term care homes in the city.
Speaking last month to the independent Long Term Care Covid-19 Commission, Dr. Jeff Turnbull raised the case to illustrate the desperate situation the women, both newcomers to Canada, found themselves in, as well as the dire consequences.
Dr. Carol Geller, a family physician who works with street-involved and homeless people at Ottawa's Centretown Community Health Centre, said it's not uncommon for newcomers to find low-paying jobs as personal support workers at long-term care homes. Often, they must still rely on shelters and other services to make ends meet.
As a society, we need to do a whole lot better of a job at starting to respect and value the work being performed in our long-term care facilities. - Candace Rennick, CUPE Ontario
"They quickly want to contribute to Canadian society. They want to make a livelihood. They want to be able to help and support their family, and a very common journey they do is they do the training to become personal support workers," Geller said.
She called the outcome in this case a "predictable, perfect storm," but one that leaves the women at the centre of that storm living in fear.
"The fear of bringing COVID home, not only to their own families, but to those within the shelter system, and the fear of bringing COVID from the shelter system back to their clients, back to the homes that they're in caring for people, or into the long-term care setting."
Pay 'grossly inadequate'
Compounding the situation is the fact that many of the jobs in long-term care facilities are drastically underpaid, said Candace Rennick, secretary-treasurer of CUPE Ontario.
"The reality is that health-care workers have been forced to work in multiple locations performing multiple jobs in order to make ends meet for their family because the pay and the compensation levels offered in Ontario's long-term care facilities are grossly inadequate," she said.
The Ontario government's single site policy, introduced to try to curb the spread of the virus, is hurting those workers financially because they tend to rely on multiple jobs to make ends meet, Rennick said.
"You cannot provide for a family and pay rental costs in a city like Toronto or Ottawa when you are making barely minimum wage and part-time hours. It's just not possible," she said. "As a society, we need to do a whole lot better of a job at starting to respect and value the work being performed in our long-term care facilities."
Vulnerable populations at risk
When the shelter investigated the outbreak last spring, it found the two women had been working in multiple long-term care facilities, but still couldn't afford rent.
"This is a very vulnerable population, and if it does spread within the homeless environment, we'll have a lot of difficulties and a lot of morbidity and mortality," Turnbull told CBC. He did not reveal which shelter the women were staying at when the outbreak occurred.
Turnbull said the shelter was able to contain the spread to three people, including the two women. As a result, the women were prevented from working at multiple facilities, further restricting their income.
"That's the major risk that we see in this context, that often they don't have benefits. Often, they need those multiple jobs to just earn enough money so that they can just get by," he said.