By Zaid Noorsumar
Part 2 of our Special Investigation into OPSWA
I think the thing that’s worrisome is that they just have not been there calling for the things that everyone else is calling for that would improve the livelihood of PSWs…And then you look and see that there’s funding and sponsorships, and so on by the very companies that have actually created these working conditions for the PSWs.Natalie Mehra, Executive Director of the Ontario Health Coalition
Personal support workers (PSWs) in Ontario are among the most mistreated workers in the healthcare system. In the province’s long-term care and home care systems, they are responsible for the majority of work, and yet most PSWs are employed part-time, compensated poorly and denied benefits. These workers are mainly women and disproportionately racialized.
Since 2010, the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association (OPSWA), has positioned itself as a fierce advocate for PSWs. OPSWA also provides liability insurance coverage, skill development conferences, and verifies the criminal backgrounds of its members.
However, does this organization truly represent the best interests of its members?
Extendicare, one of the for-profit giants in the long-term care and home care sectors, has been the gold sponsor of OPSWA’s annual 2019 and 2020 conferences (the latter was cancelled due to the pandemic).
OPSWA has maintained this partnership since May 2013, even as Extendicare has made millions of dollars in profits and paid significant sums to shareholders, while its staff are subject to deplorable working conditions. Ten percent of long-term care beds in Ontario are either owned and/or managed by Extendicare.
In the early 2000s, the company was mired in legal issues due to poor quality care in its American nursing homes. In 2012, the United States Department of Justice fined the company $38 million for billing the government “for materially substandard nursing services that were so deficient that they were effectively worthless.” Extendicare exited the United States in 2014 after paying the fine, selling off its portfolio for $870 million.
During the pandemic, Extendicare has once again proven to be a disastrous provider of long-term care (and home care). As the Toronto Star has reported, Extendicare has made massive payouts to shareholders during the pandemic even as residents in its homes have died at a higher rate than those in non-profit and municipal homes.
OPSWA also has sponsorship arrangements with Home Care Ontario and CarePartners. Home Care Ontario represents for-profit companies in the home care sector, and its recent board chairperson, Linda Knight, is the CEO of CarePartners. The home care sector pays PSWs even less than long-term care, and with fewer benefits.
CarePartners is a ruthless employer that denies its workers even basic benefits like paid sick days. Last year its lawyers were so heartless during bargaining with the union SEIU that one of the PSWs said she would cry in her hotel room at night because she felt so defeated.
The Ontario Long-Term Care Association
OPSWA has also had favourable dealings with the Ontario Long-Term Care Association (OLTCA), which mainly represents for-profit companies. Over the years, even as the Ontario government underfunded long-term care, the OLTCA’s successful lobbying has ensured that companies continue to make a profit.
At the same time, OLTCA has lobbied against a minimum care standard that would ensure that residents get at least four hours of care and workers are not burnt out. In 1996, the Ontario PC government of Premier Mike Harris removed a minimum care standard at the behest of the OLTCA.
In April 2019, the OLTCA’s annual report argued that the Ontario government allow “flexible staffing,” in order to replace higher-trained staff with lower-trained staff. Early in the pandemic, the Ontario government’s emergency orders delivered on this long-standing demand.
OPSWA and unions in home care
With Home Care Ontario leading the way, for-profit home care companies have taken over huge amounts of market share from non-profit providers thanks to the Harris-era (1995-2003) policies that busted unions and created terrible working conditions. Home Care Ontario and its members have taken explicit anti-union and anti-worker stances, and yet, is supported by OPSWA.
OPSWA also has a good relationship with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), which is a non-confrontational union that tends to have cooperative relationships with corporate interests. It is widely regarded as a “company union” in the broader labour movement, and has been kept out of the Canadian Labour Congress.
In a recent successful union drive by ParaMed home care workers, OPSWA helped out by connecting workers with CLAC. ParaMed is owned by Extendicare, and is represented on the board of Home Care Ontario
When I asked her in a Rabble.ca interview why she allied with such organizations, Ferrier distanced herself from CarePartners and Home Care Ontario, justifying that her sponsors were not her partners. And yet, she has a LinkedIn endorsement from Sue VanderBent (CEO of Home Care Ontario), and proudly declared Linda Knight (CarePartners CEO) as her partner on Facebook.
Miranda Ferrier emphasizes that these corporate sponsors have no influence on OPSWA operations. She says that their relationship mainly consists of promotion at conferences and the sharing of job postings.
But how does OPSWA look out for the best interests of PSWs when proudly declaring Extendicare as a partner and sponsor of its annual conferences?
For instance, in 2018, Ferrier told CTV that she wasn’t surprised to see lawsuits against long-term care corporations including Extendicare, and yet the following year OPSWA’s annual conference was being sponsored by that same company.
“I think the thing that’s worrisome is that they just have not been there calling for the things that everyone else is calling for that would improve the livelihood of PSWs,” says Natalie Mehra, the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, and a fierce advocates for long-term care workers and residents.
“And they don’t have a consistent message, it’s kind of all over the place. So you never know what they’re gonna say at any given point. And then you look and see that there’s funding and sponsorships, and so on by the very companies that have actually created these working conditions for the PSWs.”
This article is Part 2 of our Special Investigation into OPSWA