We have all seen the incredible images of young families holding up babies to closed windows at long term care facilities, showing new grandchildren to residents under lockdown.
Older children hold up bristol board signs reading “We love you, Grandma” as residents and family members press their hands to opposite sides the glass.
As heartwarming as these images are, there is a sadness to them because of the important emotional connection that is lost and so important to the health of long-term care residents.
Behind that glass is also a growing and heartbreaking tragedy as COVID-19 spreads through such facilities, where residents are especially vulnerable due to their age and underlying health conditions.
There are no centralized statistics on the number of COVID-19 cases in long term care, or the deaths, but according to reports in the media and Unifor’s own research at the facilities we represent, it is clear that COVID-19 is spreading at dozens of facilities, hundreds have become sick and the death toll keeps rising.
These numbers are increasing daily and rapidly. At the facility where my mother lived before she passed away five years ago, there have already been two deaths.
Anyone who has visited a loved one in such a facility knows how easily an infection can spread given the close quarters and shared living and dining spaces. The one my mother lived in was beautiful, and she received excellent care.
What you often don’t see on a visit are the other underlying issues that make such facilities a perfect breeding ground for viruses.
Such facilities typically pay very badly, and keep many workers on part-time schedules, which exposes more people to the virus. The use of part time staff boosts the bottom lines for the homes, and helps them stay within their limited government funding.
Cuts to funding to pay for corporate tax cuts have forced the homes to look for ways to save money any way they can. They’ve used this argument to keep wage increases well below the rate of inflation for the last decade, forcing many workers out of the industry. Poor pay for critical work is a recipe for disaster.
You can’t cut a billion dollars out of healthcare, as happened in Ontario following years of cuts by Conservative governments across Canada, without consequences.
The working conditions mean that staff must work at two, three or more homes to make ends meet. It is a perfect condition for staff to spread the virus from one facility to another as they run from one part-time job to the next. Nursing homes should be ordered to up-staff during this critical time, scheduling all casuals and part-time workers who are able, to work full-time hours in one home. The scope of this pandemic demands the very safest level of care.
There needs to be a real push for more full-time jobs in long term care facilities for the long term, and better pay for those doing the work. Unifor has called for a $3 and hour top up for personal support workers to attract those who left the industry to return during the pandemic, but we need to have a real conversation about working conditions over the long term.
It has been more than two years since Unifor launched its Six Minute Challenge, highlighting the challenges workers in long term care facilities face.
Such workers are given only six minutes per resident to get them ready for the day each morning. Our social media challenge was for people to see if they could get themselves ready in the morning – showered, shaved, hair combed, teeth brushed, clothes on, etc.– in just six minutes.
Few could do it. I couldn’t, and yet workers in long term care are expected to do it every day with each of the 12 to 16 residents in their care. For the safety and the dignity of the residents, the workloads for long-term care workers must be addressed so they can provide the care that is needed.
As a union representing more than 30,000 health care workers, Unifor has pushed back against low wages, the preference for part-time jobs and the heavy workloads, and has called for greater government funding to address all these issues and more.
What is becoming increasingly evident in the pandemic, however, is that safe and decent working conditions for staff at long term care facilities are also safe and decent living conditions for the residents.
The two cannot be separated. Residents can’t be safe if the workers aren’t.