For-profit home-care company locked in stalemate with workers

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Image: Mona Hjort

CarePartners, a for-profit company which provides home care services in Ontario, has been locked in a months-long stalemate with the union that represents nearly 2,800 of its personal support workers (PSWs). Women and racialized immigrants comprise the majority of the workforce, which has been without a contract since March.

On November 10, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 announced that CarePartners had filed a "no board report" with the Ministry of Labour. Filing this report starts a 17-day (or more) cooling-off period before a strike or lockout deadline. After the deadline, the union can vote to strike, or the employer can lock out workers.

To better understand the conflict between SEIU and CarePartners, rabble had in-depth conversations with two personal support workers and the director of home care at the union. CarePartners did not respond to our request for comments, despite multiple attempts to reach the firm through emails and phone calls.

Minimizing wages for profit

There are days when Mona Hjort, a personal support worker at CarePartners, drives over 100 kilometres to see clients spread across the Fergus community in Ontario's predominantly rural Wellington Country. 

For over a decade, the 66-year-old personal support worker has been taking care of people who require assistance at home, such as the elderly and those living with disabilities. 

As a "full-time employee," Hjort is obliged to dedicate 45 hours of her week to CarePartners. However, she is only guaranteed 30 hours of paid work. 

Hjort earns $19 per hour for every hour she spends with clients -- but virtually nothing for time spent travelling between clients or waiting to be assigned work. CarePartners reimburses her 37 cents for every kilometre plus a minute's pay for every three kilometres (32 cents). 

If on a given day she spends five hours with clients, three hours on-call and two hours travelling 90 kilometres, she makes about $138. 

But Hjort is among the highest paid PSWs. For those whose wages are capped at $16.50, the compensation would be approximately $124 -- amounting to an hourly rate below the $14 minimum wage. 

And that's before factoring in the costs of car maintenance and gas -- as well as other unexpected costs.

The uneven countryside terrain, especially in winter conditions, sometimes leaves home care workers vulnerable to potentially costly vehicle expenses.

"I have broken stuff in my front wheels," Hjort says. "It cost me $2,200 to have it fixed because of potholes in somebody's driveway. So if that happens, well, you are on your own [there is no reimbursement from the employer]."

The costs of regular car servicing, winter tires and other expenses are carried by the workers. 

"I always say, it almost costs us to go to work," Hjort says.

Like other home care agencies, CarePartners receives $35.83 from the government for every hour of care it provides. On days when Hjort earns $138 for her day-long slog, her employer generates $179.15 in revenue. 

Although the union would ideally like workers to be paid hourly wages while travelling, its demands on the bargaining table are modest: it is asking for 40 cents per kilometre and a minute's pay for every two kilometres. Under that proposal, Hjort would earn $145.25. 

Wage discrepancy 

Due to the complicated nature of Ontario's severely underfunded health-care system, PSWs earn different rates depending on the clients they visit. As home care in the province is rationed, government-funded care is limited to those with the greatest needs.

For publicly funded patients, Hjort earns $19 an hour. However, for clients in the private market, CarePartners remunerates according to her base wage: $15.44. The lowest base wage at the firm is $14.02. 

Tali Zrehen, the director of home and community care at SEIU, points to the dilemma of workers when asked to service non-publicly funded clients. 

"A lot of our PSWs are so desperate that they pick up a lot of these private clients, even if they're making less money, because it's less money versus no money, right?" she says.

Hjort says most workers scrape by on low pay cheques.

"A lot of the girls are making probably around $800 every two weeks," Hjort says of CarePartners' predominantly female workforce. "I am getting a little bit more because I am one of the highest ones on the seniority list."

Part-time and precarious

Zrehen says that most of the union's members at CarePartners are part-time and thus ineligible for benefits accorded to full-time staff.

She says the union appreciates that it would be costly for the company to provide benefits for everyone, which is why they are focused on improving the existing package.

"Right now the employer pays only $70 per month towards eligible employees towards the cost of core benefits. We are asking to increase that to over $100," Zrehen says.

According to Zrehen, many of the ostensibly part-time members end up working full-time hours anyway, but are denied full-time status. 

"So what ends up happening is that you produce 40 hours a week, you work like any other full-time worker but you're not getting the benefits of a full-time worker," she says.

Based on SEIU's experience, the problem is systemic as many home care companies replace departing full-time staff with multiple part-time positions.

Retirement savings are another issue on the bargaining table. SEIU has its own retirement plan for its members, but is asking CarePartners to contribute to administrative fees. 

Health and safety risks

The terrain of home care poses unique challenges for workers who can be accosted by hidden hazards when visiting strangers at their homes. 

Bedbugs, off-the-leash dogs and sexual assault pose serious risks that CarePartners' employees say are not always taken seriously by the firm. 

For instance, Hjort recounts being sexually assaulted by a man on separate occasions. The second time, he cornered her in the bathroom. 

"I said, 'You can't do that' and he said, 'I can do whatever damn I want because you work for me,'" Hjort remembers. "So, I got past him and I just went out and I called the office and I said, I'm not going back in there.'"

As CarePartners investigated, Hjort found out that he had previously done the same to other PSWs. She says the company should have informed her about the patient's history.

"They just remove [the workers] from the home and send somebody else in without telling us anything about what this guy has been doing to previous PSWs," she complains.

Hjort says that the company provides a protective kit to mitigate risk from sick clients but there are times when the workers are in the dark about a patient's illness for several weeks.

"A lot of times we don't get notified [about a contagious disease] before or after you've been there like two or three times," Hjort laments. "We get people coming home from the hospital with MRSA. And it's like three, four weeks before we get a voicemail [from CarePartners]."

Losing paid sick days

Like many other workers in Ontario, CarePartners' employees lost their two paid sick days when the Ford government rolled back labour reforms.

The union has now had to ask for sick days at the bargaining table, something the company has refused to budge on.

The workers are frustrated by this, as patients are often quickly sent home from hospitals while not fully recovered -- another symptom of Ontario's underfunded health care.

"Basically you have to be on your guard everywhere you go," Hjort says. "If you get the flu from one of the clients and you get sick for eight days -- well, you're not covered."

Why work as a PSW?

Considering the burden of employment in home care, Hjort says it makes more sense to work at Tim Hortons -- where one can at least be guaranteed a minimum wage.

Ontario is facing a shortage of PSWs across home care and long-term care, as the profession is failing to attract and retain workers.

According to SEIU, the turnover rate among their members who are employed by for-profit companies such as CarePartners is close to 40 per cent. 

For those who choose to stay in the job, the reasons vary. Some stay because starting somewhere else would mean losing their seniority.

For Gloria Turney, a full-time CarePartners employee of seven years who supplements her income by picking up shifts at a hospital, being a [racialized] immigrant influences her situation.

"I'm an immigrant right. I was new to this country. You have your bills to pay," she says. "My son was in college -- I'm not jumping ship because the thing is, this company might be bad but based on the feedback, it's like everywhere you go it's the same thing."

The love of the work is also a factor for those who might consider switching jobs.

"I love making somebody's life better. Don't do it for the money because if it was the money I would have been long gone," Turney says.

"I have a client who stands at the door and she waits for me and I get a hug and a kiss [upon arrival]," she says, citing the fact that for some clients the time with their PSW may be their only human interaction for the day.

"It's the smile on their faces. The difference you make in your life. For me, it makes me feel that I'm doing something [meaningful]."

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.

Image: Mona Hjort

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