After her 83-year-old mother had spent years in a retirement home, Deborah MacDonald finally made the difficult decision late last year to put her on a waiting list for long-term care.
The 14 hours of care the Brampton resident’s mom gets weekly are no longer enough to address her worsening dementia, MacDonald says. Those hours also aren’t guaranteed due to a shortage of personal support workers (PSW). Despite her disdain for the system’s treatment of seniors, she says long-term care is the only financially viable option that can support her mom, even with its ongoing staff shortages.
“You’re giving me three options: starve my mother, quit my job, or put her into bankruptcy,” MacDonald told CBC News. She says the burden shouldn’t fall on taxpayers to work around a strained health-care system.
“We’ve done our part; we’ve given you our money …You owe us the services we’re entitled to receive, and they should be of good quality.”
MacDonald says she’s disillusioned with Ontario’s treatment of seniors throughout the pandemic. With a provincial election a little more than a couple of weeks away, she says she doesn’t trust parties that say they’ll reform senior care if elected. Advocates say her sentiments are shared by jaded PSWs who are leaving the sector in droves, burned out by the extra strain of COVID-19.
“I don’t even know how to put into words that make sense, to stress how absolutely devastating our front-line health-care system is right now,” said Miranda Ferrier, the CEO and president of the Ontario Personal Support Worker Association, which represents more than 50,000 PSWs who work in long-term, home and community, and hospital settings.
She says she’s watched the health-care system endure continuous cuts by Liberal and Conservative governments alike, and has no time to entertain the promises of reform from political parties when she’s busy keeping senior care afloat.
“Why should I?” Ferrier.asked.
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
‘Bottom of the totem pole’
For years, PSWs have been seen as the “bottom of the totem pole” below nurses and doctors, says Ferrier. Despite this, she says, their jobs are integral to providing care to seniors across Ontario, particularly throughout the pandemic..
As of May 11, 4,511 long-term care residents have died with COVID-19 — 30 per cent of all total deaths due to the novel coronavirus in the province since early 2020. More than 150 long-term care homes are still in an active COVID-19 outbreak, putting PSWs under continuous strain.
“Here they were in the beginning of COVID, the heroes, the warriors. And now, they’ve been forgotten again,” said Ferrier.
Throughout the pandemic, health-care advocates and unions have been fighting for higher wages, increased job security, safer working conditions, guaranteed benefits and paid sick leave. They’ve also pushed for the repeal of Bill 124, legislation brought in by the Ford government in 2019 that limits the wage increases of provincial employees like nurses and teachers to one per cent per year.
The lack of change on many of those fronts has pushed Gina Wray, a PSW for 32 years, to look for another job. Despite being passionate about her work, she says she’s physically and mentally exhausted from working in a system that gives her no time to do her job properly.
“We’re lucky to give them six minutes a day to do just care,” said Wray.
“I compare that to a factory. A factory wouldn’t work short. Why are we doing it on the front line?”
What the parties are promising
The provincial Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats provided email statements to CBC News on what they’ll do to address the PSW shortage if they’re elected on June 2.
The PCs say if they form government they’ll invest $2.8 billion over the next three years to make the $3 per hour pandemic wage hike for PSWs permanent, and an extra $4.9 billion to train and hire more than 27,000 front-line staff.
The Ontario Liberals say they would provide mental health services for all health professionals, provide top-ups to short-staffed shift work, and bring PSWs’ pay to $25 an hour, in line with the federal Liberal government’s campaign pledge in 2021.
The NDP says it’ll invest $450 million a year in long-term, home and community care, and increase that to $1.9 billion annually by 2026, recruit and train 10,000 more personal support workers, cut out part-time PSW gig work and provide a minimum of four hours of care for every resident each day.
The Green Party platform includes a promise to “increase the proportion of long-term care investment in community and home-based care from 13 per cent to 35 per cent in order to match the [Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development] average.”
Both the NDP and Liberal parties say they’ll repeal Bill 124.
Ferrier says while each party wants to throw money at the problem through wage increases and hiring blitzes, that alone won’t keep PSWs from leaving.
She says change can happen only when governments address the “lack of respect” for PSWs through prompt regulation of the long-term care sector, job security and a “ground-up” policy that gives front-line workers more say in how the sector works.
“It will take a lot of trust, but I believe that whoever wins this election, if they actually listen to the association and the front-line workers, positive change can be made,” said Ferrier.
“If they don’t listen and if they continue down the same path that they’ve been on, it’s just going to continue to fall apart.”
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