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New PSW training program not nearly enough to solve staffing crisis in long-term care, say critics

Posted: February 23, 2021

(Feb. 22, 2021)
By: Elizabeth Payne, Ottawa Citizen

An innovative Ottawa program that matches people who have difficulty entering the workforce with jobs will train up to 120 personal support workers in the next 10 months.

The Earn as You Learn program run by Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre in conjunction with two career colleges will provide training and support for workers to help fill gaps for personal support workers. People taking part in the program will be able to work, either in long-term or home care, while they train — first as a residential care assistant, then with more training as a home support worker and finally as a personal support worker, said Rhonda Beauregard, manager of the program.

The Pinecrest-Queensway program is one of eight PSW training programs announced by the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monday. The Pinecrest-Queensway program will receive almost half of the $4 million funding that made up the announcement.

Earlier this year, the Ontario government funded another Ottawa-based program, at Willis College, that expects to train up to 300 PSWs.

Those programs are part of the provincial government’s effort to fill severe staffing gaps in long-term care — gaps that have worsened during the pandemic and will grow further when the province increases the amount of daily care long-term care residents receive in the next few years.

But critics say Ontario is moving far too slowly to address the crisis in long-term care and has yet to reveal any overall staffing plan for the sector which has been the hardest hit during the pandemic.

“There is a humanitarian crisis in Ontario’s long-term care homes. Residents are going without proper feeding and hydration, baths, foot care, repositioning, rehabilitation – the very basics of care – let alone not having their psychological, social, and cultural needs met,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the advocacy group, the Ontario Health Coalition.

“We have never, in all of our years advocating in long-term care, seen such a widespread and profound staffing and care crisis. In context, this announcement is so inadequate as to be unconscionable.”

Others called the funding, to date, a drop in the bucket and questioned why the province has not released a plan to train PSWs to fill existing gaps as well as the 27,000 new positions the province has committed to creating for personal support workers over the next four years. Those additional positions will be needed when long-term care homes are required under law to provide four hours of hands-on care every day to each long-term care resident. That four-hour standard-of-care has long been called for — most recently by the province’s Long-Term Care Commission in an interim report.

The Pinecrest-Queensway program is unusual in that it trains people who, for various reasons, have been unable to find lasting employment. In addition to the training and work, the program offers “wrap-around” support to help workers overcome challenges, including literacy, that might have kept them from working in the past, said Beauregard.

“We work with individuals to understand their barriers to having employment,” she said. That includes assisting with literacy and working with employers to make sure the employees are integrating into the workforce. That support continues as they work, she said.

The program aims to train 120 new personal support workers by mid-December, she said.

Grace Welch of the Champlain Family Council Network, which represents family councils at long-term care homes in the region, said the province needs to move quickly and have an overall staffing plan to improve the dire situation in long-term care.

“We desperately need a comprehensive action plan that will fast-track recruitment and training of urgently needed personal support workers. And how can we recruit unless we address the critical need to address wages and working conditions?” Welch asked.

Mehra of the Ontario Health Coalition said Quebec’s approach to the staffing crisis in long-term care focuses not only on recruitment, but also on improving jobs in long-term care. Beginning last summer, Quebec launched an initiative to recruit 10,000 PSWs, pay them $21 an hour for training as well as offering increased wages and full-time work.

Precarious work conditions, the difficulty finding full-time work and benefits as well as low pay all make it difficult to recruit and retain personal support workers.

Mehra noted that Ontario’s need to recruit PSWs has become greater because significant numbers of staff left during the pandemic, “reducing care to the lowest levels we have ever seen.”

Staff shortages have been cited in reports from the military and the long-term care commission as contributing to the hardship experienced by long-term care residents during the pandemic.

“It is hard to imagine how this announcement could be less than it is,” said Mehra. “It is an attempt to make it look like something is happening when it is not. We are stunned and appalled.”

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