by Zaid Noorsumar
About 100 frontline health care workers at a nursing home in Ontario are being denied wage increases by the Ford government even though the employer wants to pay them more.
Service International Employees Union (SEIU) reached an agreement last summer with Mariann Home, a non-profit long-term care facility located in Richmond Hill.
The deal provided wage increases to all staff members including nurses, personal support workers (PSWs), dietary aides and housekeepers.
However, in November, the Ford government passed Bill 124, which caps wages in the broader public sector to one per cent per year.
Bill 124 only impacts non-profit homes
In the long-term care sector, the legislation only impacts non-profit nursing homes but not municipal and for-profit homes. Non-profits and charitable homes comprise about 24 per cent of facilities in the sector.
“We advocated [before the bill passed] that the government treat all long-term care homes the same,” said Lisa Levin, CEO of AdvantAge Ontario, the association that represents most non-profit and municipal nursing homes.
“[But the wage freeze] makes it challenging. It’s harder for non-profit homes to be attractive to staff.”
Levin said that her organization had not been informed why the legislation only affects non-profit homes. All nursing homes receive the same base funding from the provincial government.
Sebastian Skamski, press secretary for the President of the Treasury Board, responding as to why the legislation doesn’t apply to for-profit homes, wrote in an email, “These organizations have other tools to determine appropriate salary and compensation increases, and any cost avoidance in these sectors would accrue to the shareholders.”
The importance of the wage increase
According to Terry Downey, SEIU’s union representative, the employer’s hourly wages lag behind other homes in the sector by about $1 or $2 for various classifications of staff.
However, Mariann Home was willing to provide better wages to meet industry standards and the new collective agreement went into effect on February 1.
But SEIU says that on February 10, the workers were told their wage increases would be limited to one per cent.
According to SEIU, the difference between the negotiated deal and the imposed restrictions amounts to about 32 cents per hour for PSWs and 19 cents per hour for registered practical nurses (RPNs).
Considering the inflation rate in Ontario over the past year was 2.1 per cent, the Ford government’s legislation amounts to an effective pay cut.
In an open letter to the government, Tanya Fray, a Mariann Home worker who organizes recreational activities for residents, spoke out against the measure.
“How do you expect us to maintain our living standards when you have taken away what we need?” Fray wrote. “We have to provide and care for our families and we cannot do it when we are living as poor class citizens.”
Government spokesperson Skamski’s email response rationalized that “protecting front-line services, public sector jobs, and being realistic about the province’s current fiscal situation means that everyone needs to do their part.”
A systemic issue
Ontario’s long-term care workers are increasingly overburdened due to years of underfunding dating back to the Harris era, which has been further exacerbated by the Ford government’s real dollar cuts.
Levin from AdvantAge Ontario says that the acuity – or severity of needs – among long-term care residents has increased significantly over the years.
“[But] the level of funding, particularly in the area of staffing, has not increased,” she said. “That makes it very challenging for homes to be able to have enough staff to care for people.”
Consequently, short-staffing combined with poor compensation has led to a labour crisis.
“Before we went into bargaining, we surveyed our staff as to what the issues were,” Downey said, referring to the union’s recent negotiations with about 100 long-term care homes.
“When the research department put all those results together, 97% of the individuals said they were working short.”
Downey says workers routinely end up skipping lunches and breaks in order to keep up with work requirements, and in some cases are expected to work uncompensated overtime.
“People are like, ‘Why am I investing in this profession if they’re not even gonna pay me properly?’ Or [they say] ‘I can go work in a hospital and get paid more,’” she says.
Levin says staff in long-term care are not appreciated enough.
“I think people sometimes really undervalue the great work that PSWs do in long-term care. It’s really tough work and they are just amazing people,” Levin said.