‘A failed venture’: Unifor president says Canada needs better long-term care system

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: As long as profit is being made in senior care, that care will be restricted: Unifor president'
Coronavirus outbreak: As long as profit is being made in senior care, that care will be restricted: Unifor president
WATCH ABOVE: Unifor National President Jerry Dias tells Mercedes Stephenson personal care workers in long-term care homes are underpaid, saying it’s time governments wake up and ensure those workers are given full-time work with benefits which will benefit senior care – May 24, 2020

After witnessing the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus on many long-term care homes and its staff, the president of Canada’s largest private sector union says the country needs “a better system than we have today.”

“Hopefully governments will wake up and will now say: ‘Look this was a failed venture, we’d better regulate the industry [and] we’d better ensure that people have full time jobs and decent pay,'” Unifor president Jerry Dias told The West Block.

In an interview with host Mercedes Stephenson, Dias said his union represents thousands of health-care workers, including personal support workers employed both in for-profit and not-for-profit long-term care facilities.

Many of these nursing homes only offer casual or part-time work to personal support workers, forcing them to take on two or three jobs “to make ends meet,” he said.

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This problem is exacerbated in for-profit environments, he claimed, because those companies want to avoid paying salaries and providing benefits.

“We need a change,” Dias said. “People are overworked and underpaid.

“So as long we have our seniors taken care of under a system for profit, there will be less workers for the purpose of maximizing profits. We need a better system than we have today.”

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In early May, the Ontario Health Coalition — an organization that advocates for protections and improvements to the public health care system — published an analysis it conducted of deaths linked to COVID-19 in for-profit, non-for-profit and municipally-owned homes in Ontario from April 28 to May 5.

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The data gathered on 93 homes with outbreaks showed a higher COVID-19 death rate in homes owned by for-profit corporations compared to the other facilities — although those homes were only half the total number of facilities experiencing outbreaks at the time.

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Long-term care facilities are currently regulated by the provinces and territories. But during the pandemic, the federal government has acknowledged there are shortcomings both in how seniors are cared for and the working conditions of the people taking care of them.

Earlier in May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government would help the provinces and territories cover the cost of a wage boost for essential workers, including those in the health-care sector.

“We see across the country people working on the front lines in essential services, in our seniors care centres, in our long-term care, in our health-care systems and elsewhere who are making very low wages while doing extraordinarily important work,” Trudeau said on May 7.

But when asked if and how Ottawa might reform the system — if it would bring long-term care under the Canada Health Act and put an end to for-profit care — federal officials haven’t gotten into specifics.

On April 23, the federal health minister said she’s considering the idea of a “long-term national project” to examine the issue across all levels of government.

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“There is a significant appetite of Canadians and of politicians to fix this situation once and for all — for seniors all across the country, and for their families who love them,” Patty Hajdu said.

Essential workers in health-care settings, grocery stores and transit systems — to name a few — have continued to do their jobs throughout the pandemic, but as many provinces begin to gradually reopen their economies, that means many other workers will be getting back to work.

Asked whether he’s confident that most employers will provide safe working environments for their employees, Dias said he’s “a lot more comfortable” with the state of unionized than nonunionized workplaces.

“In the unionized workplaces we have very active health and safety committees,” he said, citing the auto industry as an example.

“We have our hands all over the return to work protocols.”

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Coronavirus outbreak: Companies are liable if they don’t provide safe workplaces during and after pandemic

That said, Dias said some members continue to have concerns about safety, “as they should be.”

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“They’re concerned about whether or not they will contract COVID-19 at work and pass it on to their families,” he said.

“There is a significant amount of uncertainty … hopefully what that means is that people are going to be very conscious when they’re at work and make sure that they follow the return to work protocols which are 100 per cent based on safety.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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