Standardized wages one answer to seniors care home crisis, says union

Paying front-line care workers standardized wages would go a long way to addressing the chronic staffing shortages and problems of employee poaching that have led to a crisis at three senior care homes on Vancouver Island, says a spokesman from the Hospital Employees Union (HEU).

"Our members are frustrated, they're tired, they're overworked and they're undergoing a lot of moral stress just trying to figure out how to deliver quality care to the seniors that they're looking after," said Mike Old.

"It's a sad situation, but it can be fixed."

On Thursday, the Selkirk Seniors Village in Victoria became the third seniors care home owned by for-profit Retirement Concepts to be put under the administrative control of the Island Health Authority for not living up to the terms its licence.

A blistering report from medical health officer Dr, Murray Fife said conditions at Selkirk were a risk to the health, safety and dignity of its more than 200 residents, and that Selkirk management was either unable or unwilling to meet its mandated responsibilities .

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The HEU represents 2,000 care aid workers at 11 of the 20 Retirement Concepts-run seniors care homes in B.C., including Selkirk and the Nanaimo Seniors Village, which was put under the health authority's administrative control two weeks ago.

At both Nanaimo and Selkirk, Island Health had to send in its own staff to stabilize the troubled facilities. Old said this move only served to underline the dysfunction of the system. 

"The workers who are going in to assist are coming from health authority facilities," he said. "They're being paid a fair and standard wage and are now working... beside workers who are overworked and stressed-out and being paid far less.

"So it's an uncomfortable situation."

Olds said care workers at the Nanaimo Seniors Village were earning almost $7 an hour less than what workers earn in the same positions at Nanaimo Regional Hospital.

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In a statement, Jennie Deneka, chief operating officer and partner of Retirement Concepts' contractee West Coast Seniors Housing Management, said having an administrator appointed at three facilities "speaks to the staffing crisis that is impacting our sector."

"We acknowledge that wage parity is a factor on our ability to recruit and maintain staff, and we are working to close that gap. We also acknowledge that these issues are having an impact on our ability to meet all compliance standards.

"We are working collaboratively with the administrator, licensing, and health authority to address these ongoing challenges."

Retirement Concepts was sold to Chinese company Anbang Insurance in 2017. But in 2018, control of the company was seized by the Chinese government when Anbang CEO Wu Xiahui was sentenced to 18 years in prison for fraud and embezzlement.

Deneka says Anbang's ownership has little impact on the management of Retirement Concepts care homes.

"The buildings (the bricks and mortar) in which we operate are foreign-owned – but the day-to-day operations are managed by West Coast Seniors Housing Management – a Canadian based and Canadian owned company," she said.

"All providers — regardless of whether they are contracted or public — are required to provide the same level of care and we take that responsibility very seriously."

Old said the roots of the current crisis can be traced to 2001 when the provincial government of the day allowed employers to opt out of a master agreement that ensured care givers at both public and private facilities were paid the same.