Nurses, PSWs leaving health care industry amid COVID-19 pandemic

Thousands of nurses and personal support workers are looking to leave the industry. As Faiza Amin reports, the government restriction of limiting staff from working at multiple long-term care homes has left many healthcare workers in a financial bind

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

The heroes on the front line of COVID-19, working to protect the most vulnerable population in the province, are now leaving or planning to leave their jobs which could potentially cause another crisis in long-term care homes.

The Services Employees International Union Healthcare (SEIU) union says nearly 30 per cent or 7,500 of the nurses and personal support workers they represent in Ontario have left their jobs or planning on leaving due to financial constraints.

“The most recent calls have been heartbreaking from front-line works who have had their jobs taken from them through no faults of their own,” said Sharleen Stewart, President of the SEIU.

The union says the government’s limiting of staff from working at multiple long-term care homes has placed a financial burden on thousands of their workers.

Stewart said, “The pandemic wasn’t their fault, the conditions were bad before COVID hit us where they were forced to work more than one job. Nobody wants to work three shifts a day to get a full-time salary.”

The restriction was put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 from home to home, and applies to a number of employees working at healthcare centers. But groups, including the Ontario Nurses Association, say the emergency order has exposed gaps that have been there long before the pandemic.

“We had a shortage of staff in long-term care before COVID, and I’m very worried about what the picture is if we don’t do something to help these people so they can stay working in the long term care sector,” said Vicki McKenna, President of the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA). “Single employer is the right way to go, but what we had discussions with government about was if they were going to institute the single employer, that somehow they need to offset the economic loss that employees would experience because of that.”

Prior to the pandemic, these health-care employees worked in several health care settings to make ends meet. As a result of the restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the union says their income has been cut by at least 50 per cent.

The Ministry of Long-Term Care tells CityNews that approximately 100,000 of these workers received the additional $4 per hour of pandemic pay, which has since ended.

“How are you ever going to take this money away form people who are already so poorly paid,” Steward said. “It’s like giving somebody some food and water and literally taking it away from them.”

The province adds that those who worked over 100 hours received an extra $250 dollars per month on their paycheck.

This was the strategy the province used to encourage staff to continue working in this field and attract new workers to help maintain the staffing levels.

“The government themselves could have taken this step to say ‘We’re not going to wait on employers to do the right thing, we’re going to do the right thing by insuring people’s wages are offset if they have an economic loss’,” said McKenna.

A number of long-term care organizations penned a letter to the province, warning that these facilities are not ready to manage a second wave of COVID-19 and the staffing shortage at these homes, has not improved.

“Ontario, the province with the largest number of long-term care residents in Canada, finds itself behind other provinces that have already completed the recruitment and training of thousands of new front-line staff … The recent surge in cases in Ontario and other provinces is a warning that we have little time to waste,” read the letter.

The letter added staffing issues have been made even worse in the current conditions. “Staff are exhausted and their mental health has diminished through the trauma they have experienced in either responding to severe outbreaks and tragic losses, or in working aggressively to prevent outbreaks.”

“We found ourselves in this situation during SARS, and here we are again,” McKenna said. “But what was different during SARS is that they set aside a fund to help offset some of that economic loss, and that didn’t happen.”

Over 1,800 people have died in over 340 long-term care homes that experienced outbreaks since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some of them lost their spouses because they contracted COVID from their partners working in nursing homes,” Steward said. “They’re not willing to take that risk any more at the rate of pay that they’re getting, the precariousness of this work and in their opinion, the total disrespect of the services they give,”

On Tuesday, opposition leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca, both criticized the government for “not being prepared.”

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