Union fights against profits over patients in long-term care

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Photo: SEIU

Service Employees International Union members in Ontario have been protesting wages and working conditions outside the offices of long-term care corporations.

SEIU represents 25,000 workers in the long-term care sector in Ontario, including nurses, personal support workers and dietary aides. 

Corey Johnson, a union spokesperson, says the actions have been organized in conjunction with its bargaining with around 100 nursing homes, mostly in the for-profit sector. 

Johnson says the main issue is short-staffing, as there aren't enough people to care for the residents.

"It's taking a toll on both -- the residents who aren't getting the care they deserve," he says. "And on the workers who are doing far more than they should be doing. They're burning out." 

In March this year, a CUPE-commissioned report called "Breaking Point" delved into the extensive violence long-term care workers in the sector face due to inadequate staffing. A related survey, also commissioned by CUPE, revealed that over 90 per cent of nurses and personal support workers (PSWs) face violence at least occasionally. 

"They're risking injury every day at work. And it's not fair to them at all," Johnson says.

A long festering issue

Concerns about staffing levels in Ontario's long-term care homes were raised as far back as 2002, when the Ontario Health Coalition warned that privatization of the sector was having an adverse impact on an aging population. 

In 2008, a study by York University and Carleton researchers blamed low staffing for the increasing rates of violence in nursing homes, which pitted aging residents against an overburdened workforce.

Ontario has three types of long-term care homes. Currently, 58 per cent of homes are for-profit, 24 per cent are non-profit and 18 per cent are municipally-owned. Research has shown that for-profit homes fare worse due to lower levels of staffing, leading to fewer hours of care per resident and higher rates of mortality and hospitalization

In 2018, a CBC Marketplace investigation named 40 of the worst nursing homes in Ontario, split evenly between those with the highest levels of intra-resident violence and those with the most staff-to-resident violence.

A rabble analysis shows that 15 of the 20 homes on the list with the highest levels of resident-on-resident violence were for-profits. Of the 20 homes facing the worst staff-to-resident violence, 13 were for-profits.

Low wages, high profits

The recently concluded Long-term Care Inquiry heard testimony that for-profit homes pay lower wages, which is contributing to a staffing shortage of registered nurses and PSWs in the province.

PSWs, who are responsible for clothing, feeding and bathing residents among other tasks, are typically paid in the range of $16 to $20 an hour.

Johnson says that non-profits and municipal homes invest money back into homes -- including for employee compensation -- while private homes use surplus funds for profits.

Extendicare owns 34 long-term care homes in Ontario, and manages 42 others. The company earned $18.8 million in profits from its long-term care business across Canada in 2018. Tim Lukenda, the outgoing CEO of Extendicare, earned $5.1 million in 2018.

Chartwell's CEO, Brent Binions, earned $2.5 million last year while his company posted $18.5 million in profits.

Taking action

SEIU's members have been engaged in rallies, protests and other forms of action since April.  

They have also created a letter writing campaign asking health-care companies to invest more money into care.

"It's about putting the profit into the care for the residents. It's about giving the residents better care, giving them a better experience, giving them more dignity. That's really what our whole campaign messages are about," Johnson says.

Zaid Noorsumar is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2019, and is a journalist who has previously contributed to CBC, The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and Rankandfile.ca. To contact Zaid with story leads, email zaid[at]rabble.ca

Photo: SEIU

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