Alberta Politics
Alberta Chief Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw at yesterday’s daily COVID-19 briefing in Edmonton (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

Pay and benefits for long term care workers must be protected — and not just during the COVID-19 crisis

Posted on April 14, 2020, 1:21 am
8 mins

It should be obvious by now that if a society wants to keep long-term care for the frail and elderly from turning into a deadly nightmare during pandemics, it must ensure privately run long-term-care centres provide their employees with the same wages, benefits and working conditions as those who work for the public health care system.

If the rules don’t prevent underpaid and marginalized health care workers from having to hold jobs at two, three or more care facilities to earn a living wage, it is axiomatic that the rule-makers are encouraging the spread of the pandemic malady.

British Columbia Provincial Medical Officer of Health Bonnie Henry (Photo: B.C. Government/Flickr).

But if the pandemic rules do prevent multi-site work but fail to ensure employees get the same pay and benefits for the same work at all sites, then there will be an immediate worker shortage whenever a pandemic hits. This too is axiomatic.

Yesterday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer admitted close to half the deaths in Canada from COVID-19 have taken place in long-term care facilities. What’s more, Teresa Tam said during her daily coronavirus update in Ottawa, that’s likely to continue as COVID-19 sweeps across the country.

That such facilities house a frail population particularly vulnerable to infectious illness is no excuse — it means extra precautions are required.

So, what do we do?

British Columbia announced at the start of April it would effectively be taking over as the employer of all long-term care workers in the province in response to the danger posed by COVID-19. B.C. Provincial Medical Officer of Health Bonnie Henry said that every long-term care worker would be hired full time and paid standardized wages for the next six months.

Many of them work not only across facilities but in acute care and long-term care,” Dr. Henry explained. “The bottom line is, everyone will be employed by the ministry at a specific rate so they will not be penalized.”

It would be fair to describe the B.C. move as both bold and courageous — bold because it needed to be done swiftly and without half measures; courageous because Canadian provincial governments have long used low pay and poor working conditions in private for-profit and not-for-profit long-term care as a mechanism for saving money and suppressing wages across the entire health care system.

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Theresa Tam (Photo: Screenshot of Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange video).

But after the clusters of COVID-19 deaths at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, the McKenzie Towne Long-Term Care Home in Calgary and the Residence Herron in Montreal, it should be obvious that this approach is a recipe for disaster during epidemics.

Yesterday, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw dropped hints during her daily COVID-19 briefing that Alberta is considering the same approach as B.C.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Dr. Hinshaw noted that “British Columbia has taken this step ahead of us, and so … we’ve been talking with them to learn from their experience, (to) make sure that we’re applying as many of the lessons that they’ve learned as we can.”

This is why, she explained, “we’ve given a one- to two-week window for making this change happen.

“We are doing our absolute best to do both things — to make sure that all facilities have enough staff to safely care for residents and at the same time minimize the risk of transmission that’s caused when staff move between facilities and between many different facilities,” she said. “All of those details are being sorted out this week and my colleagues and I are working to make sure that both of those objectives are met.”

Dr. Hinshaw certainly understands that this simply can’t be done if for-profit care home operators are permitted to pay low wages, avoid providing comparable benefits and scrimp on supplies for residents and safety equipment for staff.

Those goals of the low-wage economy favoured by market-fundamentalist governments are simply incompatible with providing safe and dignified long-term care — and not just for few months during pandemic emergencies.

That’s why organizations like the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions have long called for a national strategy for equitable and inclusive safe seniors’ care with adequate staffing levels, a stable workforce, dedicated funding, and effective enforcement.

And that’s why during the coronavirus pandemic, both United Nurses of Alberta and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees have called for policies like those implemented in British Columbia to ensure safe operation of Alberta long-term-care facilities.

If the continuing coronavirus pandemic has made anything clear, it’s that we need to be prepared for whatever may come, and running a hospital or a care home like a hotel or a fast-food restaurant is a recipe for disaster whenever it happens.

So that doesn’t just mean for six months during emergencies, but always, to ensure safety and fair treatment for residents and staff alike in jobs that will always be essential.

This doesn’t rule out a role for the private sector. But as an essential service, long-term care needs to be operated just as electrical and telephone utilities were before the destructive 40-year march of neoliberalism began — with negotiated profit margins that are fair to the operators and shareholders and strict regulation that ensure safe and affordable essential services for citizens who require them.

Because, face it, dear readers, we might as well get used to the idea that COVID-19 isn’t going to be the last global pandemic we will ever face.

We don’t know when we’ll have to deal with the next one, but we can rest assured we will.

11 Comments to: Pay and benefits for long term care workers must be protected — and not just during the COVID-19 crisis

  1. Dave

    April 14th, 2020

    It is true that the corona virus pandemic has exposed many weaknesses and flaws in our economic and health systems. In particular, the use of part time workers who work in more than one long term care facility is a recipe for disaster.

    It is not just BC dealing with this issue, but Quebec is also having to deal with the terrible messes some private care operators have left. It’s not good when the staff do not show up because they are do not have proper protective equipment, are fearful or for other reasons and the low pay is not exactly enticing or motivating. The operators of these facilities may have been well meaning, but either were overwhelmed by circumstances or did not have the resources to deal with the situation. This is the sometimes tragic outcome of trying to provide long term care on the cheap.

    Of course, the problem in society is much bigger than this. For instance, hotel and food service workers are also often not well paid, work multiple jobs and have to show up when not feeling well because they have no sick pay. Again, not a good idea in a pandemic, although at least they are not interacting with vulnerable people as much.

    Hopefully we will learn lessons from all of this and be not doomed to repeat the same terrible mistakes, so the next time something like this happens things will not be so tragic.

  2. Bill Malcolm

    April 14th, 2020

    You touch on a number of things which have caused me concern for some time, based on personal experience.

    It started more than 15 years ago when my early 80’s mother broke her hip. The hospital care was marginal — as my mother went downhill, I simply could not believe that nurses had not been taught that humans lying flat on their back cannot drink from a cup. Try it yourself to see how well you can swallow. Straws do not help. It remained to me as an engineer as Mum’s kidneys started to fail, to prop her up, and get some fluids into her. Christ Almighty! Me! It took only a day for her to stage a real comeback. She made it another ten years. The family paid for a sitter as she recovered. $16 an hour of which the procession of totally untrained girls got $9.50. So the invisible hand of private business acting as an agency skimmed profit off the top. Private business efficiency? Don’t make me laugh. It’s the kenney approach – hive off government jobs to unqualified nonentities with no training and call it efficiency while making the middle man a tidy profit for doing SFA. That’s what we face. No different from when companies transferred manufacturing to China, and we got back ersatz copies which cost the consumer no less and were of worse quality — profit to the middle man.

    The private retirement home that my mother subsequently moved into had an options list a mile long, such as $5 for a cup of tea not at mealtimes. Over-priced all around. Both that and her subsequent public home had no policy that their staff get a flu shot each year. I found that unforgiveable. Might as well have been the Middle Ages with voodoo. So the minimum standards you propose I fully concur with. Pay carers properly and you know, train their outlooks as well as their brains — no crazy anti-vaxxers allowed. This pandemic should be a wake-up call for everyone, but I wonder if anything’s really being learned.

    I worked at a public electrical utility for the greater part of my career. The Public Utilities Board held their feet to the fire. During the late ’80s when the neoliberal crew were in full stride, the buzz in utility circles at the semi-annual conferences of the Canadian Electrical Association centred around dodgy consultant economists pushing the separation of Generation, Transmission and Distribution. For efficiency. Sure. Of course, it happened in Ontario and Alberta, to the complete detriment of all concerned except politicians and money makers rubbing their hands in glee. During my last visit to Calgary, my brother tried to explain to me how he got his electrical hookup. It was total gibberish to me. Gibberish. Apparently there are middle men going around selling contracts for power and gas. That’s the purest inefficiency I can imagine. Useless unproductive employment where none is needed or required. In the UK, similar nonsense meant a household in say Brighton on the south coast could buy their electricity from Scottish Power. As an expert in first metering and secondarily rates for obvious reasons, it was clear that nobody had a clue over there about practical matters. None whatsoever. The politics over-ran reason. Same thing in Ontario and Alberta.

    Here in NS, our utility was privatized in the early ’90s and basically given away; however, there was no splitting up Generation, Transmission and Distribution. So guess what? The Utilities Board still rule(s) the roost, and so there is just one number/web page to call for hookup or disconnection. One price. What an idea! No dodgy salesmen hawking bad deals on a basic utility. No numbnutz ideological politicians without a clue regulating things from behind the scenes.

    Now we come to whether kenney has a point criticizing Tam over why he shouldn’t be allowed to buy unproven quick Covid-19 testing gear from Europe or wherever. One of these tests has proven useless in the UK – all one needs to do is read The Guardian, which I am certain kenney never has. The Germans have the same problem. Every dodgy outfit with a “maybe it’s good” test is out there trying to flog their wares to desperate governments. The Canadian portable testing machine in the news yesterday going into serial production is not some FlyByNight scheme, however. The last thing we need is some test that gives either false positives or negatives, upon whose results major public health decisions might be made by rank medical amateurs like politicians. On the other hand, I am not overly impressed with Tam myself — the reassurance a couple of months ago that Canada would have no trouble with Covid-19 because of our experience with SARS was completely incorrect, and I do agree that we were late shutting our borders nationally, and certainly not much effort was made to really get the message across to returning snowbirds that self-quarantine was necessary, until it was too late. I guess there’s enough blame to go around.

    On the testing front, I see Alberta is now barely ahead of Nova Scotia on a per capita basis. A huge effort has been made to do lab tests here locally rather than sending samples off to Winnipeg. So we’re running between 800 and a 1,000 tests a day here, and our Covid-19 positives haven’t come down yet, running about 25 to 30 a day. On the other hand, only 3 people have died in a province with a fifth of Alberta’s population. Still, you might as well be talking to a wall when it comes to people out for a ride or besieging supermarkets. I’ve only been out twice in a month for supplies and there’s more traffic than usual on our rural roads where I live, and I say that as a retiree used to traffic patterns during a “normal” day. The Tour de France bicycle types are still hammering along the twisty two-laners as if nothing has happened. Makes you wonder.

    Best info on what’s happening statistically in Canada by province and worldwide is the Globe and Mail. This web page is free:

  3. Abs

    April 14th, 2020

    Amen to that!

  4. J.E. Molnar

    April 14th, 2020

    It’s a no-brainer Mr. Kenney!!

    Now would be an opportune time for Jason (I’ve-Got-An-Expert-Panel-For That) Kenney to establish an “expert panel” to look into funding, wages, safety and work practices at Alberta’s long-term and continuing care facilities with a view to establishing a playbook during a provincial emergency or worldwide pandemic. To ensure the UCP brain trust gets it right — they should make good use of the expertise from Alberta’s healthcare and nurses’ unions.

  5. Murphy

    April 14th, 2020

    Why should we get used to the idea that Covid is not the last global pandemic we will face? The ’57 and ’68 flus were real killers, with death tolls in the millions. The Chupacabra bug is nothing like that in terms of severity of illness. And is it really sweeping the nation? According to the Alberta Government, we’re at 1732 cases after more than a month, and a few weeks of the ersatz lock-down.
    It seems a curious thing, if global pandemics are just something to expect on a regular basis, that we have never undertaken anything like “flattening the curve”, or social distancing, or closing the schools, etc. But you know, loose lips sink ships; if you see something, say something; I am the Walrus.

    My mom went out on strike four times with the UNA. RN’s were treated, to an astonishing degree, like chattel when she started at the Calgary General in the sixties. The last time she struck, in 1988, conditions had already been created during the 1982 strike to strangle the nurses rights , and the government was able to implement an array of techniques to criminalize the nurse’s actions in that last round of wonton lawlessness. The bosses stopped dues collection, the nurses were charged with civil contempt, and then criminal contempt, and finally received individual termination notices. This after the Forsyth hearings in ’82 had found the nurses’ grievances to be legitimate and awarded a number of mandated improvements. In ’88 the nurses were fined a quarter million dollars after the government failed to get a $1 million fine pushed through. Eventually fines added up to around half a million dollars. I suffered a facial injury playing hockey during that last stike, and when my mother picked me up from the hospital, the physician who had just reinstalled my septum and sewn me up asked her what right she had to be on the property. Curiously, during the ’82 strike my brother had been diagnosed with a spinal injury and had to see an orthopoedic doctor, who similarly asked my mother why he should treat my 12-year-old brother given that she was refusing to work. Just a couple of wacky anecdotes about the attitude toward nurses held even amongst their betters in the hierarchy.
    Subsequent to the last strike, although some gains were made, the wife-beating drunk was installed in Edmonton and the whole system was attacked. Because like it or not, health care is a luxury. Humans can suffer through a lot, and the ruling class knows this. Look at the fat, depressed, diabetic and drug-addled folks to the south. Our masters are currently pinched a little bit in the blowback from the panicdemic, but rest assured, in the coming austerity, an increase in public quality of care is not about to manifest for the long-term.

    Meanwhile, we can all look forward to another wave of deaths among the elderly and infirm once the uninfected population, which according to the data, is basically everyone, get down to spreading the bug again. No herd immunity for us, thank you very much.
    Laugher of the day comes from the great Fauci:
    “The flu has a mortality rate of 0.1 percent. This has a mortality rate of 10 times that. That’s the reason I want to emphasize we have to stay ahead of the game in preventing this.”
    “Covid-19 — Navigating the Uncharted
    List of authors.
    Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., H. Clifford Lane, M.D., and Robert R. Redfield, M.D.
    If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.”

    Here in Alberta, we have no idea whatseover how many people have been infected and remained asymptomatic, or suffered mild symptoms and recovered. But we do know that out of 1732 “positive tested” cases, the fatality rate is under .5% for everybody under age sixty, and 2.7 for the whole population once the Massacre in Mckenzie Towne is figured in. And again, those figures do not reflect the unknown rate of infection in the population, although it seems to be around 2% no matter how many are given the PCR test on any given day. So have there been 88 000 infections in the province? No sense worrying about that sort of thing, I suppose.

    “In Canada, influenza causes an estimated 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths each year. ”

    “Areas in Canada with cases of COVID-19 as of April 13, 2020
    Canada Number of confirmed cases 25,663 Number of probable cases 17 Number of deaths 780”

    Of course, no distinction is ever being made between people who die “from” the Chupacabra, and those who die “with” the Chupacabra, and by golly, that’s just the way we do things when the banks are broke again and the War on Terror fails to break the Russians and and the Chinese.
    “MN Sen. and Dr. Jensen said that he received a 7 page document from the MN Department of Health advising him to fill out death certificates with a diagnosis of #COVID-19 whether the person actually died from COVID-19 or not. ”

    This is basically the approach everywhere but, as far as I can tell, Sweden.

    As a lot of people have a lot of free time on their hands, I highly suggest this little gem concerning the role of our good friends in the Central Intelligence Agency and their warm relationship with the media. It’s a Golden Oldie, but there’s no evidence that anybody ever fixed this awesome system that wasn’t broke:

  6. Just Me

    April 14th, 2020

    Considering that the vast majority of seniors in care homes voted UCP this should be issue #1 in Ken-Doh’s mind.

    All those infirm seniors voting UCP at the slightest nudge, if anything happens to them, Kenney might have to return to federal politics and have Peter MacKay as his leader.

    That must also be known as the Seventh Circle of Hell.

  7. Murphy

    April 14th, 2020

    Here’s what we can really expect for Alberta’s healthcare future:
    “guests were simply to bring a meaningful cheque payable to the charity or charities which Wilson had chosen”. Who in the hell needs taxation or democracy when a crypto-fascist Twitter addict, who may be the single most vain of all Great Calgarians, can just have a party with Tailgunner Jay and copromorph Craig Chandler?
    $500k donated to 11 mental health charities. Enough to pay a reasonable salary to five people with post-graduate degrees, which anyone claiming to provide mental health services should have, at minimum. If any one of Calgary’s billionnaires footed the whole shot, they’d be left with only $999 500 000. Give ’til it hurts!

  8. Francois Donneur

    April 14th, 2020

    Great example from British Colombia New Democratic Government taking over the providing of wages for long term care providers. Thank you Mr. Horgan and thank you David for bringing up that important information

  9. Bob Raynard

    April 15th, 2020

    Both not-for-profit and corporate long term care facilities use a model of suppressed wages and benefits to keep costs (ie taxes) low. I am imagining what would have happened 6 months ago if someone suggested a tax bump to pay for the increased cost, and I am sure the phrase ‘taxed to death’ would have been used repeatedly. Now that many people have died, some undoubtedly as a result of care workers inadvertently transferring the disease from one facility to another so they can have a decent wage, I wonder if we will start to hear a more accurate phrase: ‘lack of tax-ed to death’.

    • Mary Nokleby

      April 16th, 2020

      The connection between fair wages and benefits for our public sector workers is an important part of this problem. We can all wax outraged in the short term of a health emergency, but we are part of the problem if we continue to drink neoliberal koolaid and cry for lower taxes. After 40 years of the mantra of lower taxes, it should occur to a few of us that all we’ve achieved is a free ride for the wealthy. Data show the tax burden has shifted downward, onto the backs of those of us in the middle and working classes…… was a ruse…….designed to destroy progressive taxation……and beggar government coffers so they’d have to outsource to corporations and other privateers.

      Our elders are paying the price of that………but to a larger extent than we realize, so are all of us. Look at the massive traffic jams lining up for boxes of food in the US of A…….always a decade ahead of us when it comes to bad ideas……..and even a grade 8 drop out should realize low taxes haven’t made the majority of us rich. On the contraary…….we’re all so pinched we’re just about ready to vote for slavery…….when our masters get the bill ready.


  10. Mary Nokleby

    April 16th, 2020

    Sound advice for moving forward in health care, which includes long term care of our grandparents. Perhaps it is time to reconsider something as supposedly radical as The Leap Manifesto. As a retired teacher I didn’t find it hard to agree with the Leap’s suggestion that we invest in the non-carbon economy. Nurses, teachers, care givers of all kinds are essential workers…….and not just in a pandemic…..they deserve our thanks…….and not just in a pandemic..BUT…they also have a tendency to live where they work, pay taxes rather than find loopholes to avoid them…AND…their jobs aren’t about ripping and shipping climate exacerbating fossil products. Their jobs are to educate our young, care for our elderly, and administer to all of us in sickness. In short, they provide real services, and we reward them with politically motivated austerity projects???? Shame.

    Discovering this morning on CBC news that Doug Ford quietly cut paid SICK DAYS for health workers… save money…….is the icing on the cake. But now I know……IF ONTARIO NURSES GET THE CORONA VIRUS THEY’D BETTER JUST SUCK IT UP AND KEEP WORKING……..or expect to go home and fight for their life without pay. Shame

    It’s not just long term care homes. They were the test sites. In Alberta our government is pressuring doctors to abandon their practices……paving the way for private, for profit health services and most Albertans are sleeping through the neoliberal conservative push. Perhaps its time to thank the corona virus for doing what it can to wake us up. I just hope its not too late to smell the coffee, because until we do, we’re all part of a world view that rewards exploiters and starves real workers for the public good. Shame.

    Our bad faith infects us all.


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