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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
British Columbia: Conditions of Health Care Workers and Seniors >