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‘It scares me to death,’ says Hamilton PSW about severe shortages of long-term care staff

Posted: February 11, 2020

(February 10, 2020)

By: Joanna Frketich, The Hamilton Spectator

Long-term care homes in the province are in crisis and at their breaking point warns Unifor and the Ontario Health Coalition.

“We’re not using the word crisis lightly,” said Andy Savela, director of health care for Unifor. “Frankly the bottom has now fallen out of long-term care in Ontario.”

The union and the health advocacy group are going around the province — including a stop in Hamilton Friday — to raise alarm about a severe shortage of personal support workers (PSW) and the deteriorating working conditions they say put 80,000 seniors in long-term care at risk.

“It scares me to death to see what is going to happen if we don’t deal with this issue now,” said Cindy Hasler, vice-president of Unifor Local 504 and a PSW at Blackadar Continuing Care Centre in Dundas.

The union and the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) have released a report that alleges long-term care homes are short one to two PSWs on almost all shifts. It adds up to at least five to 10 PSWs short in a 24-hour period.

“In every town, in virtually every long-term care home, on virtually every shift, long-term care homes are working short-staffed,” it states.

“There is a PSW crisis in long-term care in Ontario that is worse than we have ever seen,” it warns. “The staffing shortages threaten care and safety for residents and staff alike.”

Unifor says the PSW shortages are so significant that funded long-term care beds in Thunder Bay have not opened. The union worries the same issue will happen in Hamilton.

“In 2018, one of our homes was awarded 128 new beds in a new build but we have not got any information on the new build as of yet,” said Glenn Westoby president of Local 504 which represents eight area long-term care homes.

“The bigger concern is how are we going to staff the new build,” he said. “Where are these PSWs coming from?”

The reports details the “disturbing picture” of staffing levels decreasing while the level of care required by residents increases.

“It impacts the vital functions of care, leaving inadequate time to provide even basic care for residents,” states the report. “Baths are skipped, care is rushed, and residents feel like a burden to overstretched staff.”

Hasler described having six minutes to care for residents.

“We have to take short cuts and it kills us,” she says. “We give up our breaks, we give up our lunches and we have girls doing overtime shifts galore.”

Families say they’ve seen PSWs trying feed up to six residents during a short meal time.

“The day-to-day care of our loved ones is deteriorating and a light must be put on that,” said Tom Carrothers of the Family Council Network Four which represents Hamilton, Niagara, Haldimand, Brant and Burlington. “This is caused by a pattern of chronic understaffing.”

He says the government needs to mandate a four-hour minimum care standard which is already out of date.

“That four hours was recommended in studies and research done 20 years ago,” said Carrothers. “Since that time, the situation of the residents has only got more and more acute.”

The report suggests long-term care residents are now equivalent to what used to be considered complex continuing care in hospitals but funded at one-third of that rate. It also says half of Ontario’s homes have no in-house Behavioural Supports Ontario resources despite nearly half of all residents displaying aggressive behaviours.

“We thought we had abandoned the concept of warehousing our frail seniors,” said Carrothers. “Everyone in Ontario is or will be impacted in some way by this horrendous lack of adequate care.”

The government says it’s developing a comprehensive long-term care staffing strategy by the end of 2020.

“Staffing plays a crucial role in ensuring that the needs of all long-term care residents are being met, and our government understands that there are real challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining PSWs and other front-line staff,” spokesperson Rebecca Bozzato said in a statement on behalf of Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton. “We are working to improve working conditions.”

The report, based on eight roundtable consultations across the province including one in Hamilton, calls for an “urgent policy response.”

“We heard about poor pay, precarious labour conditions, and few or no benefits,” states the report. “This mostly female, often racialized workforce feels that they themselves are being abused and neglected.”

The situation has become so untenable that PSWs are switching to work as cleaners in long-term care or leaving the industry to work in restaurants or retail. Hasler describes staff quitting within one week of starting.

“PSW wages that are not significantly higher than minimum wage, and workloads that are considerably heavier than jobs with comparable compensation, have meant that PSWs have voted with their feet,” states the report.

“They feel that they are being held accountable for a level of care that is impossible to provide with the resources that they have been given.”

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