How Filipino-Canadian care aides are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic

Cora Mojica says there's "a scary feeling" these days at Vancouver General Hospital, where she works in food services, preparing and delivering meals to patients in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mojica — a Hospital Employees' Union member — says so far, none of her coworkers have been infected, but they are worried. She estimates 90 per cent of them are women of colour, most are immigrants from the Philippines, and all feel vulnerable.

"We always take extra, extra precautions not to get the virus," she said. "We are told to wear the proper PPE, [wash] hands frequently and [maintain] social distancing."

Cora Mojica

Many front-line workers — including food services employees, health care aides, grocery store clerks, and custodial staff — are people of colour. They are at the low end of the earning scale, but are at high risk of being exposed to COVID-19 and spreading it. 

Why care aides are more vulnerable

The epicentre of B.C.'s COVID-19 outbreak has been long-term care homes and assisted living facilities, where a disproportionate number of care aides are Filipina women, according to Leonora Angeles, an associate professor with UBC's Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice.

Due to federal immigration and labour policies such as the Live-in Caregiver Program, many Filipino-Canadians are kept working in low-wage sectors such as domestic child care and seniors' care, she said.

"We know from research that about 50 per cent of largely women under the Live-in Caregiver Program have not been able to move out of care-giving work," she said in an interview with Stephen Quinn, host of The Early Edition.

"And 15 years after they've been out of the program, their wages have remained basically the same in real value."

Since 2003, the subcontracting of senior care services to private care homes has also led to a "vicious cycle of low pay, difficulty in hiring and retaining staff," as well as increased workload and deteriorating conditions for care workers, Angeles said. 

Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press

As a result, many health care aides have no choice but to work at multiple sites to make ends meet — a practice that Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says has led to COVID-19 transmissions between care homes.

Single site order

To curb further outbreaks, Dr. Henry imposed a single site work order on 533 facilities across the province. But as of May 28, 36 homes have yet to implement the plan. 

The order has had a financial impact on health care aides, especially casual workers and those who work in private facilities. According to a report by B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel MacKenzie, private care home workers could earn 28 per cent less than the industry standard base wage of $23.48 an hour. 

"Working in one site alone to protect everyone else is good for the benefit of the community, but for the benefit of individual needs and individual families' needs, it's not enough," said one care aide, who spoke to the CBC on condition of anonymity.

Prior to the single site order, she said she and many of her colleagues worked at multiple care homes. 

Now, she is restricted to one assisted living facility in the Lower Mainland, where she has a temporary position and is guaranteed only 23 hours of work a week.

Temporary wage boost

On May 19, the provincial government announced a temporary pay boost for front-line workers. The lump sum payment is worth about $4 per hour for a 16-week period.

"Everybody was just clapping ... from our facility," the care aide recalled.

She estimates she would receive roughly $1,400 total, which she says would allow her to pay bills, keep financing her car, and send money to her mother in the Philippines.

But the province has yet to implement other promises, such as a temporary wage top-up for private care home workers. The initiative would cost the province $10 million per month.

Mike McArthur/CBC

"That money hasn't arrived yet because it's a complicated process," Health Minister Adrian Dix told Quinn. 

"There are dozens of collective agreements, for example ... but we're getting there and it's going to be retroactive."

Foreign credentials recognition is needed

While all these measures will make a difference, Mojica, a member of Migrante B.C. — a community-based organization of Filipinos in the province — says it's also important for the government to recognize foreign credentials. Otherwise, workers from other countries will continue to work multiple low-wage jobs to patch together a living and expose themselves to health risks, she said.

"Back home [in the Philippines], they are nurses, doctors," Mojica said.

"When they come here to find a job, they have to really work whatever job they can find to support themselves and support their families."

RJ Aquino, director of the Tulayan Filipino Diaspora Society, is also pushing for B.C.'s Ministry of Health to collect racial and ethnic data to see how COVID-19 uniquely affects the Filipino-Canadian community.

"We want to create evidence-based public health policy not only to respond to specific communities, but to employ preventative measures and identify which communities would need support and, in the long run, which communities have been affected the most," he said.