Chronic lack of staff willing to work as personal support workers has plagued Quebec’s long-term care facilities, or CHSLDs, for years, but it only reached crisis level when the COVID-19 virus spread to residents and began infecting and threatening staff.
According to Luc Vachon, president of the 73,000-member Centrale des syndicats démocratiques, with 5,000 members in the health and social services sector, part of the staffing problem is very low pay: the starting salary for unionized personal support workers in public and private facilities in Quebec is about $14 an hour, with a top scale of up to $19.
In other words, the pay is slightly more than Quebec’s minimum wage, which on May 1 went to $13.50 from $13.10.
Working conditions are usually worse in the private sector than in fully public long-term care homes including wages, schedules, and vacations, Vachon said.
“The workload is also higher in the private sector, but some are better than others.”
One of the problems that may have contributed to the spread of the virus to senior sin long term care is the fact that many of these workers in Montreal are only engaged part-time and have to hold a second job, Vachon said.
“Some of them even have three jobs to make enough to survive. This is especially the case in Montreal where many of the people hired for this work are new arrivals —immigrants who are in a more precarious situation.”
Most of these workers are women, who because of their contacts in other part-time jobs, “increase the risk” of contracting and spreading the virus, he noted.
What needs to change, says Vachon, is ensuring that there are regulations in senior care facilities and enough inspectors to verify that they are being followed.
Vachon was reluctant to criticize the way the Legault government has responded to the pandemic, saying COVID-19 “merely brought us closer to the breaking point.”
“The weakness and failures of the network for senior care have been known for many years. It comes down to economic factors, how much a certain level of care will cost in dollar terms.
“We should look at it another way: How much dignity are we ready to offer people, and then dedicate the financing necessary to get there.
“How much is each life that was lost worth? This was happening before COVID-19, and it passed under the radar. We have to put the individual back into the essence of how we use our resources.
“We must redefine our objectives, which at the moment are more economic than targeted toward the human element of our health and social services.”
Vachon says every Quebec government has made the same error in not sufficiently involving civil society in improving health and social services.
The Coalition Avenir Québec campaign pledge to build a network of smaller senior care facilities, dubbed Maisons des aînés, will not solve the core problems we now face, he said.
“It’s not just about the size of the building. When you have a residence for 150 people you have more human resources available, more possibilities for equipment, and replacement staff when someone is ill.
“The issue is not just about the size of a building, it’s about how we will organize care, offer training, and a comfortable lifestyle for seniors.’
To develop such an approach, the union has proposed an Estates General style of conference, where there are representatives from labour, business, the professions, and the academy, to develop a framework for improving eldercare. The government has not yet said whether it will hold such a conference.