British Columbia

Conditions of Health Care Workers and Seniors

As of April 22 there were 19 outbreaks in long-term care and assisted living facilities in British Columbia and workers are taking measures throughout the province to prevent further outbreaks. This is not just a matter of the vulnerability of the seniors who live in these residences. For decades, workers and families of residents have been sounding the alarm about the conditions in long-term care and assisted living homes, particularly those that operate for private profit. "Normal" conditions mean workers who are absent not being replaced, excessive overtime and thousands of hours of unpaid work being done by visitors and volunteers. The sudden loss of family members and volunteers during the pandemic has made a bad situation even worse. Workers in long-term care are speaking out about what is needed to be able to do their jobs safely, to protect their residents, their families and communities and themselves.

Workers' Forum interviewed Rhonda Bruce, a front line long-term care worker in British Columbia. She is a rehabilitation assistant and a member of the provincial executive of the Hospital Employees' Union (HEU).

Workers' Forum: What measures have been taken to prepare in your workplaces to deal with COVID-19?

Rhonda Bruce: What they have done in the hospitals is they have sent many patients home and made preparations for caring for COVID-19 patients. Many hospitals are at less than 50 per cent capacity. Some long-term care facilities have outbreaks of colds or flu. What's changed is that before when you had an outbreak they had to have three residents with symptoms for three days to declare an outbreak and now if they have one resident with a cold then they shut the facility down to visitors and introduce special infection control measures. A lot of sites in the province have been declared to be on an outbreak because it's cold and flu season. As soon as somebody gets a cold they shut everybody down, which means no recreation programs at all. Many sites have central dining rooms which are usually pretty packed. Most residents eat in dining rooms, but are separated when there is an outbreak declared. Instead of eating in a dining room residents are eating in their rooms or other areas. Even with recreation and other staff being re-deployed to help there are not enough staff for this or for the extra cleaning that is required, and so on. Recreation programs are not taking place. People are also needed to arrange video calls to family for residents so they can see their family because no visitors are coming in.

WF: So you're in preparatory mode for COVID-19. Do workers have what is needed?

RB: We have some problems in some places. The Ministry of Health said that they were going to take care of all our workers with child care but that is not always taking place. I know of a case of a young mother who has a toddler and no daycare. She tried to get special leave. We have a provision for special leave in our contract and this worker has a special leave bank. They refused to give it to her. She had four days where she didn't have a family member to support her to give her child care because her child care was cancelled. This is stressful every single day for parents of young children. Then of course there are lots of memos from the Health Authorities and managers giving different interpretations of the memos and sometimes giving wrong instructions to the workers regarding personal protective equipment (PPE). Last week a dietary worker in one of the long term care homes said they had been told they have to change their gloves after each person served. The person serving has gloves on and never touches the resident so that makes no sense and they will just burn through the PPE and not have them when they are really needed. That protocol applies for staff who are feeding residents, who of course have to change gloves and wash their hands between residents.

Many hospitals and long-term care facilities share casual employees between them and have float pools -- workers that go to different areas of the hospital or residence or even between facilities as needed. There was a case recently of a nurse who was doing front line work -- first response triage in an Emergency Department -- who the next day went to work in a long-term care facility. This is playing with fire. If that nurse is the first person dealing with a patient who is found to have COVID-19 and became infected they would be bringing it straight to the vulnerable seniors in the long-term care home. So far, although the province has restricted movement of staff between long-term care facilities, there is no restriction on staff moving between hospitals, group homes and long-term care.

WF: What was the situation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to prepare for it?

RB: Throughout BC there is overtime almost every shift because there is not enough staff. There never has been enough staff. We have lots of casual workers and most of them want full-time work. They have to work in three or four places, wherever they can get their hours, because they need to make a living.

WF: What is the reason that more full time and part time positions are not created?

RB: Because the employer saves on benefits. Casuals don't have benefits. Lots of time people take part-time positions, which do have benefits, and then they pick up more work. Not all long-term care sites are covered by the Facilities Bargaining Association (FBA) Collective Agreement where industry standard wages and benefits are in place, under a master agreement for the province. There are other long-term care homes in the region that are private and have lower wages. In the sites which are privately operated for profit, and the wages are much lower than those in the Facilities Agreement, the workers try their best to get a job at another workplace. They can even be working full-time but if they get a job in an FBA site they'll leave. There are always lots of workers stepping out of those sites when they get work in an FBA site.

WF: What kind of things is the union advocating for?

RB: There are things that can be done right now. Workers who need it should be able to use their special leave bank. Our employers could make sure we have meals, coffee from time to time, increased funding for uniforms and shoes because of the new rules, proper changing facilities. People who are not on the front lines don't understand what it is to be in the situation we're in. We been working on the brink for so long and this situation is even worse, so we need support and employers have to listen to us. We all want to stop this. We are all committed to the residents that we care for. Our collective agreement is being respected. The union is really advocating for us. As an HEU provincial executive officer on the front line, I still have a job to do. I spend most of my day doing occupational safety, instructing people on PPE, etc. and constantly answering questions. My manager is working with me. I can't imagine what it is like for workers in Ontario and Quebec where their collective agreements are not being respected. How can you walk the extra mile in those conditions?

This article was published in

Number 25 - April 24, 2020

Article Link:
British Columbia: Conditions of Health Care Workers and Seniors >


Website:   Email: