Coronavirus outbreak at Markham home for adults with disabilities causes staff to walk off job

Click to play video: 'Staff walked out of Markham group home after residents test positive for COVID-19'
Staff walked out of Markham group home after residents test positive for COVID-19
WATCH ABOVE: Dozens of workers walked out of Participation House, leaving adults with disabilities with little to no care after an outbreak of COVID-19. Kamil Karamali reports – Apr 10, 2020

A Markham home for adults with disabilities is in dire need of help after an outbreak of the novel coronavirus caused the majority of staff to walk off the job.

Participation House is home to 42 adults with disabilities and as of Friday, had a confirmed 10 residents and two staff members test positive for COVID-19, Debra McLaughlin, a member of the board of directors, told Global News.

McLaughlin said Shelley Brillinger, executive director of Participation House, told staff about the outbreak Thursday, which then caused workers to walk off the job. McLaughlin said that Brillinger and four other managers were providing care for the residents.

Palmer Lockridge, a spokesperson for Ontario’s community services ministry, said in an statement Friday afternoon that there were eight support staff in the facility, including three personal support workers and a nurse.

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“The health and safety of our staff and those in our care is the ministry’s top priority,” Lockridge said.

“Our regional staff are working closely with Participation House to ensure appropriate staffing levels are in place and that all steps are being taken to protect staff and residents. Personal protective equipment is available and in use, and more is on the way.”

McLaughlin alleged that the union is refusing to allow staff to come back, even after being offered double their salary. Agencies who supply personal support workers reportedly also won’t send anyone.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Family reacts after staff at Markham home for adults walk off job'
Coronavirus: Family reacts after staff at Markham home for adults walk off job

Tom Galivan, a spokesperson with Service Employees International Local 2, said it’s an “absolute lie” that employees were told to not return to work and said the union has had difficulty contacting management since Thursday night.

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Management told workers about the cases on Thursday and said staff who felt they were exposed could self-isolate, Galivan said.

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Galivan couldn’t confirm if all the staff left at the same time, but said “characterizing this as a job action is misleading.” He added that there has been a lack of personal protective equipment since the pandemic began.

“This is vulnerable clientele and we want our members to return to work in a safe place, but they have the right to decline work if they feel unsafe,” Galivan said.

He confirmed that management discussed a possible wage raise, but said he doesn’t know if this is “an actual commitment from them.”

“There has been an longstanding issue with wages and staff morale that has been exacerbated with COVID-19 cases at the facility,” Galivan said.

When asked about the situation at an unrelated news conference Friday, Premier Doug Ford ensured that the proper staff will be brought in to take care of the residents.

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Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott then echoed Ford’s sentiment.

“We need to make sure any of them [residents] exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms are properly cared for, we’re going to need to put them into self-isolation and we need to make sure they get the care they expect and deserve,” she said.

“So we need to do a number of things quite rapidly but this is a population that we absolutely need and want to protect.”

Meanwhile, Markham’s Mayor Frank Scarpitti put out a call for emergency support for the home Friday afternoon after he said York Region Public Health informed him of the outbreak at Participation House.

“I am issuing an emergency call to businesses, community groups or individuals who can immediately help to provide gowns, safety glasses and gloves,” Scarpitti said in a statement, adding that anyone who can help should contact his office.

Scarpitti said personal protective equipment (PPE) is even more critical to the house because it has six separate units, but each unit has six bedrooms and three washrooms and all are open to a common area that includes a dining hall, which allows for easier spread of the virus.

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“They need help. Their situation speaks to the vulnerability of the residents and staff, and exactly why the public has to strictly adhere to physical distancing and all the other requirements during this public health emergency.”

The release went on to say that the city is working to facilitate a donation of masks to Participation House, along with the Markhaven Home for Seniors, which is also experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.

“The residents and staff at both facilities deserve our support and we have an obligation to do everything within our power to provide that support,” said Scarpitti.

As of Friday morning, Ontario had reported 73 outbreaks at long-term care homes and retirement homes across the province.

Ontario also reported 478 new cases of coronavirus Friday morning, including 22 deaths, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the province to 6,237.

The death toll rose to 222.

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