Alberta premier likely to target wage boosts to seniors' home workers

Employees in Alberta continuing care homes and seniors’ residences are the most likely recipients of a federal wage top-up intended for essential workers.

Details of pay hike still being worked out

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says cabinet is still mulling over which workers should receive wage top-ups during the pandemic through a cost-sharing program with the federal government. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Employees in Alberta continuing care homes and seniors' residences are the most likely recipients of a federal wage top-up intended for essential workers.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Friday the province will receive $46 million of a $3-billion federal fund to give low-wage workers a temporary raise for the risks they face during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We want to focus it where it is most needed," Kenney said. "And I think we've all recognized that the greatest risk is in and around nursing homes, long-term care, seniors' residences."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a deal Thursday between the federal government and Canadian premiers that would see a cost-shared boost to front-line workers assuming extra risk while their pay is as low as minimum wage.

The provinces and territories are expected to collectively contribute another $1 billion.

Kenney said some details, such as the Alberta government's contribution, are still being worked out.

It's up to each province and territory to decide which workers will qualify for the short-term pay bump and how much the raises will be.

Private health-care aides already received $2-per-hour raise

In April, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the provincial government would boost the wages of health-care aides working in private facilities by $2 an hour during the public health crisis.

A union leader said that selective wage hike created problems. Other care home front-line workers, such as food service employees and housekeepers are also doing high-risk, low-paid work and received no extra cash, said Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith.

Union leaders have been calling on the government to introduce standardized wages for health-care workers for the duration of the pandemic. They say there are substantial wage disparities between employers.

The Opposition NDP has pushed the United Conservative Party government to double the wage top-up for all private continuing-care workers to $4 an hour.

Ontario's government has already granted a $4-per-hour wage increase to all front-line workers at long-term care homes, seniors' lodges, emergency shelters, jails, group homes, home care workers and other critical services.

Most of the coronavirus outbreaks in congregate settings in Alberta have been in seniors' residences or long-term care homes. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Kenney said Thursday health-care aides, and other workers that are difficult to recruit and retain, will be high on the list for the new pay raises.

Cabinet is also considering whether employees in care homes for people with intellectual disabilities should be on the list, he said.

"It's important to underscore that this is a discrete and time-limited program," he said. "It's not a permanent wage increase. And it can't be for everybody."

Care home residents, workers risk exposure

Vulnerable people living in congregated settings have been disproportionately hard hit by COVID-19. As of Friday, there were coronavirus outbreaks in 35 Alberta long-term care and supported living facilities, most of which were in the Calgary zone.

Of the 115 people who have died in Alberta of COVID-19, 84 of them lived in continuing care. Older adults are at much higher risk of dying from an infection.

An outbreak can present major staffing challenges if employees develop symptoms and health-care workers are restricted to working at only one location to prevent the spread of disease.

A few deadly outbreaks at seniors' residences have also seen staff flee in fear.

Quebec's coroner is investigating a private care home where 31 residents died in the span of a month. Alberta Health Services took over the Manoir du Lac residence in northern Alberta after a COVID-19 outbreak prompted a staffing crisis.

A rule restricting Alberta continuing-care workers to one site has been indefinitely postponed. As of Wednesday, 95 per cent of workers were reporting to only one site, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said. He said the one site restriction will become mandatory as soon as possible. 

Although Shandro also announced additional funding to increase the number of health-care aides by 1,000 full-time equivalents, McMillan said the health-care system will fill that need by giving part-time and casual workers full-time hours.