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.”
Rita Quesnel says
Everything that I read is very TRUE because I am a PSW for 21 years now we are short of supplies at the depot we are always calling or messaging for them to bring some. I STAYED HOME this week because of my age and medical problem.
Rita quesnel says
Their are too many boss’s and we are doing the work for little $$$$ salary to pay them.
Barbara Fletcher says
We could also do well checks – as in phone calls – on our patients (through our work device).
Phyllis Coffman says
Our office offers 2 masks per psw yet we are told use once and throw away so are we supposed to stop working when we have used our 2 masks ? We have psw’s that work in homecare and as you said work a second job often in retirement homes. When i was doing that I had to choose a loyalty and work one or the other. Our coordinators are poor at best and have us homecare workers running from not just homes but multiple retirement homes rather then booking us in just one with several clients and someone else in the other rh home. Its shameful the way psw’s are treated and not valued. Where I am we make just barely over minimum wage and are expected to support a car for them. The govt needs to step up and send us a little help for gas. I worked for the same company down south and made around $3 more per hour yet costs up north are more expensive. Why do psw’s quit? Lack of respect for our safety is a good place to start. We have been told if we need something they will bring it to us…… dont come up to the office. WOW
Tanya Dawson says
I also am employed in a workplace that is funded by the LHINS and we are a supportive housing service within a seniors building. Our sick days are based on the number of hours in which we work, so it could take 3 months to get one sick day depending on our hours. The government needs to step up to the plate and help us PSW’s who do not work for the regions or have a union. You want us to put compromise our health everyday, but do not want to help us when we need it. We PSW’s are living in poverty.
Robert Pascal says
Demanding extra time for 30 min and 45 min home visits.. need time for PPE protocols.. doff and don.. and still give a shower on 8th floor high rise patient in 30 min..
Then get to next home in community….
G MOSS says
all so true……my husband has PSW’s working from Care Partners….I never have seen employees who have been treated so badly, underpaid and treated with very little respect. The PSW”s have been a god send to me, I treat them like family and wish that somewhere along the line someone would shine the light on the truth, the front line workers should be the best paid NOT THE CEO”S
Yes we r at risk, (1),Respite should be put on hold till futher notice, (2),We do have clients that only wants Excersice that should be put on hold,
(3) Weekend work should be put on hold also, if clients are high risk then yes we go, if not then we as psw should stay home.
(4) We should not be travelling all over the place, I should be staying in my town, instead they make me travel 45min for work meanwhile there is like 6psw in the town they send me.
I am a worker at RNS working for $17 dollars per hour i have to be up 4am to get to work does it worth it No
Office worker are yelling at you and putting there phone down
Treating us like shit
I know someone who works for ‘We Care’ in Ontario, she travels to client’s homes. Lately she has been told that the office won’t supply anymore surgical masks and they are extremely low on hand sanitizer. My friend feels unsafe and at the very least, wants to wear proper PPE when visiting her clients, but her employer said not to because it ‘frightens’ the clients. Pathetic. PSWs work so hard and for such low wages to begin with. Now add in this crisis and they are forced into unsafe working conditions. I urge all of you PSWs to contact your local MPP and make them aware of this situation.