Panel also criticized for having no union representation
By Zaid Noorsumar
The Ontario government’s recently constituted long-term care staffing advisory group includes the owner of a for-profit chain that donated $20,000 to health minister and deputy premier Christine Elliot’s campaign to lead the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in 2015.
James Schlegel, the CEO of Schlegel Villages, was one of the ten people appointed to the long-term care staffing panel last month. The Schlegel family owns 19 nursing homes across Ontario and has contributed $120,624 to political parties since 2007.
Progressive Conservatives have received the majority of the donations ($71,743) while the Liberals have taken $46,681 and the NDP $2,200.
The family appears to have a particularly cozy relationship with Minister Elliot, who has been their single largest individual beneficiary. Between 2014 and 2018, the Schlegels donated $27,374 to Elliot through various family members and their affiliated businesses.
Matt Drown, the nursing home chain’s director of community connections, said in an emailed statement that Schlegel believes in maintaining relationships with Ontario’s governing parties and supporting “good candidates” regardless of affiliation.
“In the spirit of bipartisanship, the Schlegel family has made contributions across parties; the donation to Christine Elliott, MPP, is just one example of this,” he wrote.
The staffing advisory group includes employer representatives, academics, a nurse as well as a patient advocate but no representatives from unions.
“There are no union representatives, yet it is supposed to be a panel about the workforce and they represent the workforce (who are muzzled by gag orders),” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the advocacy group, the Ontario Health Coalition.
Mehra noted, however, that a for-profit executive had found space on the group.
Drown said that Schlegel would invest time in the group “advocating for, and improving the quality of life of, seniors and their care providers.”
“[James Schlegel’s] leadership, experience and expertise position him well to provide sound strategic advice and make meaningful contributions to the group,” Drown wrote.
The government didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Political donations and their impact on policy
In 2001, CBC’s Marketplace reported that the biggest donors to the Ontario Progressive Conservatives appeared to win the contracts to build new long-term care beds. The Ontario PC government in 1995-2003 awarded two-thirds of all beds to for-profit companies.
During the Liberal era in Ontario (2003-2018), the regulations in long-term care generally remained friendly for the pursuit of profit. Despite the clamour from advocacy groups and unions, the Liberals did not institute a minimum staffing standard in line with best practices.
Academic research has consistently shown that for-profit facilities deliver poorer quality of care as they tend to generate revenue through short-staffing. Municipal and non-profit homes have a better track record.
“For-profit homes have generally opposed regulation including staffing ratios or minimum care standards that force money to be spent on care and limit potential profit-taking,” Mehra said.
Based on records obtained from Elections Ontario and the National Post’s political donations database, the long-term care corporate lobby has donated $666,857 to Ontario’s political parties since 2007.
The Ontario PCs have received 340,477, the Ontario Liberals $301,649 and the Ontario NDP $24,730.
Corporate donations have been banned since 2017, which makes it trickier to track donations from individuals affiliated with businesses.
Unifor says Schlegel homes are poorly staffed
Schlegel Villages is currently locked in a bargaining dispute with Unifor, to negotiate contracts for staff at six of their homes in Windsor, London and Hamilton.
Tullio DiPonti, president of Unifor local 2458, which represents staff at two homes in Windsor, said that Schlegel was refusing to acknowledge the short-staffing problem.
He said this was despite the fact that Schlegel Villages had participated in the roundtables organized to produce the recently released Unifor-Ontario Health Coalition report about the crisis of understaffing in long-term care homes.
One of the main recommendations of the report is to improve wages to attract and retain employees, whose exodus from the sector has caused a labour shortage.
The vast majority of long-term care staff are women, who often come from racialized and immigrant backgrounds.
Another recommendation of the Unifor-OHC report is to improve staffing levels, so that workers can provide adequate time to residents. The neglect of residents is a serious problem that causes workplace violence, including murders and preventable deaths.
In July 2019, a Ministry of Health report suggested that short-staffing may have contributed to the deaths of two residents at a Walkerton home.
DiPonti said that staff at Schlegel homes were getting burnt out.
“Before they walk into some of these homes, they’re sitting in the cars crying, trying to figure out how to get through that day,” he said. “They know that they’re going to be working short, and there’s not enough people to get the adequate attention to those residents.”
Ford government continues to ignore Time to Care Act
While the staffing advisory group will propose solutions by the end of 2020, the workers and residents continue to suffer through an intensifying crisis that has long been in the making.
In 2002, the Ontario Health Coalition warned about the dangers of privatizing long-term care. However, successive governments haven’t taken serious actions to reverse profit-taking in the sector.
Experts advocate for a minimum of 4.1 hours of daily care per resident to deliver high-quality service, which would also drastically improve working conditions.
The NDP put forward a bill to implement that standard in 2018, but the government has ignored it.
However, when the bill – called Time to Care Act – was introduced in 2016, the Ontario PCs supported it. In Nov. 2017, it passed second reading with consensus among all three major parties. But the ruling Liberals did not take further action on it.
The Ontario Long-term Care Association, which represents the interests of for-profit homes including Schlegel, has opposed the legislation.
Ontario’s long-term care hasn’t had a minimum care standard since the Ontario PC government of Premier Mike Harris removed it in 1996.