Over the last decades of the 20th century, a concerted and successful effort was made by health care unions to ensure that all workers were compensated at the same level, whether they worked in hospitals or seniors homes, both private and public. Prior to 2002 the vast majority of workers in hospitals and almost all seniors' homes -- whether owned and operated by the province, non-profits, including churches and community based societies, or a small number of private homes operated for profit -- received the same wages and benefits and were covered by one master collective agreement. Legislation passed in 2002 allowing the contracting out of health care services in hospitals and seniors' residences to private operators opened the health care sector to multinational corporations like Compass, Aramark, Sodexho and Acciona, which now provide food and housekeeping services in most hospitals. Subsequent legislation opened the door for the awarding of contracts for seniors' care homes to private operators, who themselves typically subcontract to other companies. The profits that are generated come directly from public funds provided by the government through suppression of wages and substandard services provided to seniors.
In many communities in British Columbia, there are significant problems with staffing levels and quality of care, cleaning and food in the corporate-owned homes. The largest operator is Retirement Concepts, a company which is owned by a multinational investment firm based in China. The purchase of the homes was approved by the federal government in 2017 and the previous owners now manage and operate the homes through West Coast Senior Housing Management. Since September of 2019, four of these homes have been put under administration by Health Authorities, three by Island Health -- in the Comox Valley, Nanaimo and Victoria -- and one by Interior Health, in Summerland.
Families of residents in care have spoken out in every community in the province, informing the Health Authorities and the Ministry of Health of the extent of the problems, including lack of care due to inadequate staff, facilities that are not cleaned properly, poor food and lack of stimulation and recreation activities. As an example, it took months of complaints from families and investigations by Licensing before the local Medical Health Officer ordered Island Health to put Comox Valley Seniors Village under administration. The Medical Health Officers in Nanaimo and Victoria subsequently issued similar orders and Nanaimo Seniors Village and Selkirk Seniors Village in Victoria were also put under administration. On February 24, it was reported that a fourth Retirement Concepts facility, Summerland Seniors Village, has been put under administration by the Interior Health Authority.
On a daily basis many of the private for-profit homes operate without sufficient staff to provide the level of care that is required by their contracts with the province, as confirmed by the report of the Office of the Seniors Advocate. On their part, the for-profit operators, through their organization, the BC Care Providers Association, have blamed the problem on difficulty in recruiting staff and lack of funding from the provincial government.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned an unacceptable situation into a crisis. On identification of the pandemic, immediate measures needed to be taken to increase staffing in order to provide increased and more rigorous cleaning, and to support seniors who are being required to stay in their rooms and avoid communal areas like dining rooms and lounges, exercise programs and outings. Instead what has happened is that the number of workers has decreased, not increased. Some workers who are casual have chosen not to accept shifts. Employers are also requiring that workers not work in more than one home and many who have the choice between working for lower wages and poorer conditions in a private home or working for industry standard wages in a Health Authority home are choosing the Health Authority home. As the needs of seniors increase due to the measures required to flatten the curve of the epidemic and treat those who become ill, the number of workers is decreasing.
The tragic consequences of this situation are seen in the COVID-19 outbreak at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, a private facility where subcontracting has resulted in three different employers operating in the home. Several residents have died, other residents and staff have been infected, and family members report an increasingly severe shortage of staff resulting in terrible living conditions for the residents and increasing danger for residents, staff and family members.
It's time for the province to listen to what communities and families have been telling them -- that it is the responsibility of the province to ensure that seniors in care receive necessary and dignified care and that the workers who provide that care receive industry standard wages, with adequate staff and appropriate training and supplies. It is not acceptable at any time that the province simply hands over the funds and refuses to take any responsibility for what the operators do with it. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on seniors makes this situation an emergency. The province should use its emergency powers to put all seniors' homes that do not meet the standards of care under administration, which would permit Health Authority employees, workers from other sectors and new hires to be deployed where needed.
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