There are few of us who can say they have been unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the impact on our seniors has been absolutely devastating.
Over 600 nursing and retirement homes across Canada have reported COVID-19 infections, with Quebec and Ontario being the hardest hit provinces. At the privately-run Résidence Herron care home in Dorval, Quebec, 31 residents died over a three-week period, after residents were largely abandoned in response to a COVID-19 outbreak that wasn’t properly reported.
Altogether, those residing in seniors’ homes account for up to 80 percent of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths.
This is a national tragedy.
It is shameful that it takes a pandemic to shine the light on the quality of care in our long-term care facilities. While Saskatchewan has not yet witnessed widespread outbreaks in seniors’ homes like other provinces, CUPE, family advocates and others have been raising concerns about the quality of care for years.
Last fall, our union commissioned a report of Saskatchewan’s long-term residential care system. This report by Carleton University researchers, entitled Crumbling Away, revealed that provincial government policies are contributing to crumbling and neglected infrastructure, a shift towards private care homes, increasing workloads and short staffing in our public long-term care facilities.
In private personal care homes, jobs require significantly less training for care staff, and, in contrast to special care homes, there is no requirement for nursing oversight, either on-site or on-call.
The Crumbling Away report concludes that for-profit provision of long-term residential care leads to lower-quality care, lower staffing ratios, higher rates of hospitalization and mortality, escalating costs, lower accountability and financial transparency.
A more recent report by health policy expert and professor Pat Armstrong reaches similar conclusions. She writes, “research demonstrates that homes run on a for-profit basis tend to have lower staffing levels, more verified complaints, and more transfers to hospitals, as well as higher rates for both ulcers and morbidity.”
Armstrong says managerial practices at private homes focus on “paying the lowest wages possible, and hiring part-time, casual and those defined as self employed in order to avoid paying benefits or providing other protections. As the experience with SARS and COVID-19 shows, these workers cannot afford to stay home when they are ill and can carry infections from place to place.”
It is time to re-think our approach to long-term residential care.
Today, CUPE and other health unions are working closely with the Saskatchewan Health Authority to ensure we focus on keeping our seniors out of harm’s way by reducing the risk of infection. This includes restricting health care workers to only one facility, mandatory wearing of masks and temperature checks prior to starting shifts. Health care unions continue to press for sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment and training for all front-line health workers.
But as we emerge from this crisis, we need governments to commit to long term solutions. These include: permanently boosting the wages of all workers who care for seniors and maximizing full-time employment; adequate paid sick leave so workers don’t feel the need to come to work sick; expanding public home care to allow more seniors to live at home; and increasing government oversight over care homes.
Last, but not least, we need to reverse the trend towards privatization in favour of expanding public long-term care by repairing neglected infrastructure, increasing staffing-to-resident ratios to ensure at least 4.1 hours of hands-on care per resident every day, and greatly reducing fees. We need to include long-term residential care as part of our universal, publicly funded, and administered health care system.
We must do better for our seniors and ensure the focus is on care, not profit.
President, CUPE Local 5430
CUPE Local 5430 represents 14,000 health care providers in Saskatchewan, including long-term care and providing home care workers.