By Zaid Noorsumar
Ontario’s home care workers are facing uncertainty due to the challenges posed by COVID-19 in a sector that is already under stress due to decades of privatization and underfunding.
Workers across the sector who serve over 700,000 clients appear to be hampered by the shortage of personal protective equipment such as surgical masks and gloves. In some cases, the shortage of supplies stems from panicked workers raiding supply closets at offices to secure equipment at the start of the pandemic.
“We don’t have (enough) hand sanitizers. We don’t have enough (surgical) masks to go around for everybody,” said Dyana Forshner-Juby, a personal support worker (PSW) for CarePartners. “We should all have a box of masks but we only have one. But we need several a day.”
Forshner-Juby said she and many of her colleagues only have one N-95 respiratory mask per person, which according to Ministry of Health guidelines should be used by workers coming into contact with patients suspected of having COVID-19.
Tali Zrehen, director of home and community care for Service International Employees Union (SEIU), said that due to lack of resources and planning, the sector wasn’t prepared to deal with the pandemic.
“A lot of these employers don’t have a proper business continuity plan set up and they’re struggling to maintain order,” said Zrehen, whose union deals with multiple employers in the sector.
Health and safety risks in home care
While Ontario has declared a state of emergency and people are increasingly urged to stay at home and practice social isolation measures, home care workers continue to visit patients at their personal homes and retirement homes.
Due to many home care workers being employed in multiple jobs, there is an increased risk of cross-contamination, according to Debbie Oldfield, a home care organizer for Canadian Union of Public Employees in Kingston and surrounding areas.
If workers get sick, many of them don’t have paid sick days or only a handful of them. One of the major publicly-funded employers in the sector, CarePartners, a for-profit company, provides none.
Oldfield said that at least one branch of ParaMed, another for-profit home care provider, was providing paid time off for workers affected by COVID-19. However, the lack of government action to protect workers leaves them at the mercy of employers.
The Ontario government has yet to legislate paid sick time off for workers despite the ongoing crisis. Alberta is the only province to introduce paid sick days for workers impacted by COVID-19. It has provided 14.
Some workers facing reduction in hours
Several workers have reported a reduction in their hours as clients cancel visits due to COVID-19 fears. Forshner-Juby said much of that time was lost to cancellation of respite visits, which can last three to four hours at a time. But she said some patients have also cancelled due to fears of contracting the virus.
Most home care patients are seniors and rightfully concerned about getting the virus, which has a higher fatality rate among the elderly.
However, the reduction in hours has major financial implications for workers. PSWs in Ontario, who provide about 75 per cent of home care services, are poorly compensated as their hourly wages range from $14 to $20. However, most workers earn less when travelling between clients. Even with a full workload, it is a poverty-wage job often supplemented by other work.
Zrehen said that employers should look to reallocate workers to different tasks where possible. For instance, patients who may be uncomfortable with home visits, might find it helpful if PSWs would provide them groceries or take out their garbage.
The vast majority of PSWs in Ontario are women and many of them are immigrants and/or racialized. Even as they take care of a vulnerable population, workers are themselves precarious in a sector rife with exploitation. Now, COVID-19 is demanding more of them.
One PSW employed by a for-profit company, whose name is not being used because she is not unionized, said she was off work due to illness but did not have paid sick time off. Despite earning just $16.50 – the provincial minimum wage for PSWs – she said she loved her job and her clients.
“These homecare workers are really the backbone of this health care system, who are going to work every day because of emotional labor, who go to their clients, above all else are going to be impacted the greatest,” Zrehen said. “They are the ones going to be putting their health most at risk.”