Low wages, lack of benefits driving continuing care assistants away, N.S. unions say

·3 min read
Union officials say staffing levels for continuing care assistants will never be resolved until workers are earning fair wages and benefits. (CBC - image credit)
Union officials say staffing levels for continuing care assistants will never be resolved until workers are earning fair wages and benefits. (CBC - image credit)

Union leaders who represent continuing care assistants in the province say if the government really wants to address recruitment and retention issues in the sector, workers must be able to get reliable hours and better pay and benefits.

Nan McFadgen, president of CUPE Nova Scotia, told the legislature's law amendments committee Monday that the recent history of labour relations in the province leaves her with little faith the government will do right by the 3,000 continuing care assistants she represents.

"Faith is a beautiful thing when it's mixed with mutual respect," she told the all-party committee. "That is not something that has interested this government for the past eight years and so it's not where we are."

McFadgen was one of several presenters who addressed MLAs about Bill 92, which will create a mandatory registry for continuing care assistants.

The government has said the registry is necessary to keep track of how many people are working in the sector and when people leave. Health Minister Zach Churchill said last week the registry will also help address recruitment and retention problems.

But McFadgen has concerns related to data collection and potential punitive measures, none of which are addressed in the act. Too much about how the legislation will work is left to regulations that have yet to be developed and McFadgen said workers don't trust the government.

Registry proposed in 2018 report

Creating the registry is one of the recommendations from a 2018 report on long-term care. McFadgen said the government may feel like it has some catching up to do given that the legislature did not sit for a year, but that shouldn't be a reason for pushing through an incomplete bill.

"We want to see what you're doing in the legislation in black and white," she said.

NSGEU president Jason MacLean told the committee if the government is really serious about confronting the problem, it must deal with the fact that continuing care assistants make low wages, are often forced to work split shifts and take on major amounts of overtime with few options for time off, and have few — if any — benefits.

Not what they trained for

Bursary programs have helped attract people to the sector, but the realities of what they confront upon leaving school are what is driving them away, said MacLean, whose union represents about 1,348 continuing care assistants.

"It's not actually what they learned in school because it's just so intense when they get out there and it's so understaffed that people are going off to other places such as Tim Hortons or other places that, I think, have almost comparable pay scales and some have perhaps more benefits but steady hours for them to go into," he said.

Regulating pay and hours is what is required, said MacLean.

New Democrat MLA Susan Leblanc suggested sending the bill back to the Health Department to address some of the concerns voiced during the committee meeting, but Liberal MLAs used their majority to defeat the motion.

Churchill has previously said that issues related to wages and hours are matters that can be addressed during contract negotiations, but that it's not his department that oversees those efforts.