Edmonton·CBC Investigates

Confusion, frustration over delay in promised staffing increases, pay top-up for health-care aides

Nearly a month after the UCP government announced a wage top-up for health-care aides in continuing care facilities, the government is just now providing more details about that increased funding, which aides have not seen yet.

Health minister announced funding nearly a month ago; says money sent last week

On April 20, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the government would top up the wages of continuing care health-care aides by $2 an hour. Nearly a month later, the government is providing more details about that wage top-up, which aides have not seen yet. (CBC)

On April 20, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced his ministry would spend an estimated $7.3 million a month during the pandemic to increase health-care aide staffing levels in continuing care facilities and top up aides' wages by $2 an hour.

Nearly a month later, the Alberta government is just now providing details about money it recently sent continuing care facilities to fund those initiatives. That statement came in response to CBC News queries about health-care aides who say they have not seen any wage top-up or increased staffing yet.

Six health-care aides and the union that represents them spoke to CBC News about widespread frustration and confusion in the weeks following Shandro's announcement. 

As recently as Thursday, the aides said there had been no significant new hiring and no news about a wage top-up, and that their employers told staff they could not get information from the health ministry about how, or when, the money will flow.

"Operators received $12.4 million last week from our government via Alberta Health Services to cover the wage top-up retroactive to April 20, and increase staff levels by the equivalent of 1,000 additional [health-care aide] positions," Shandro's press secretary Steve Buick said Thursday afternoon in an emailed statement.

Buick said aides will see the wage increase in their next pay period, and that "operators are increasing staffing according to their needs and availability of staff to take on additional hours and shifts."

The $12.4 million, he said, will cover the wage top-up from April 20 to the end of May. After that, funding will be provided on a monthly basis.

Only employees at private continuing care facilities, whose salaries are usually lower, qualify for the wage top-up. Workers at sites run by Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health, Carewest and Capital Care are not eligible.

The aides, who all should be receiving the wage increase, spoke to CBC News on condition of confidentiality because they fear being fired. They said their facilities have not given them any information about a wage top-up.

Buick's statement did not explain the reason for the apparent delay in providing funds to the employers, nor did it include any information about how the government is ensuring facility operators use the money for its intended purposes.

Last week, a CBC News reporter asked the government about the wage top-up and when it would take effect.

"The wage top-up money is flowing to operators through AHS," Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan told the reporter on May 8. "This process is now underway."  

Alberta Health Services did not immediately respond to questions from CBC News Thursday afternoon.

Confusion over wage top-up

AgeCare, which operates 10 facilities in Alberta, said In a May 7 memo to staff that it was still awaiting details from the government about how the wage top-up would be implemented. The memo was obtained by CBC News.

"We have reached out to both the government and other stakeholders looking for the details and for answers to our questions," the memo said.

"For example, we need to know what date this top-up is to start and any eligibility requirement by employee or employer," it stated. "The Alberta government has not yet provided any further information to any employer."

An AgeCare aide on Thursday said she had heard nothing about the wage top-up from her managers. 

More than 25 continuing care facilities across Alberta, such as McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre in Calgary, have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks. As of Thursday afternoon, a total of 669 residents and staff across the province have contracted the virus, and 87 residents have died. (Google Maps)

"I think the minister of health just made an announcement without really fully understanding how it would be implemented," said Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), which represents workers in 195 continuing care facilities. 

"It has left a lot of confusion for our members on the front lines."

Early Thursday evening, an AUPE spokesperson said he had learned that same day about two private continuing care facilities whose operators recently notified their workers that increased pay was pending.

Health-care aides describe confusion, frustration

Continuing and long-term care facilities have become the front line of the province's struggle to contain COVID-19.

As of Thursday afternoon, 669 residents and staff at Alberta continuing care facilities have contracted the virus, which is especially deadly for older and immuno-compromised people. Of those, 87 residents have died — nearly three-quarters of the province's deaths. A total of 569 people have recovered.

The promised wage supplement was, in part, to help relieve the financial burden for aides who normally work at several locations, but the government is working to restrict employees to one facility to limit the potential spread of COVID-19. Buick, in his statement, said 95 per cent of all facilities now have single-site employees.

But health-care aides from across the province told CBC News nothing had changed and they did not know why.

An aide who works in a facility in St. Albert said she and other aides have decided, for their own safety and that of their co-workers and residents, to work only in one facility, rather than two or more. But it meant she was making less money.

"I am a single mom and [the $2-an-hour pay raise] would give me a little bit of a breathing space, so a little bit of allowance for bills or just having extra food on my table for my daughter and myself," she said.

An aide in Cold Lake said she is more fortunate than some of her co-workers because her husband is still employed and they are financially secure.

For families with one income — especially with children or sending money to family in another country — the increase "would mean being able to pay the rent and not trying to shift around and find different, cheaper housing or trying to budget for groceries," she said.

Increased risks and workload

An aide in Calgary said the COVID-19 safety measures have significantly increased the workload for all care facility workers.

"They have not increased staffing so that is a major problem for me," she said. "They are just expecting more and more from us." 

She said those aides who have chosen to work at only one facility have not been given, as promised, extra shifts to make up for the lost income.  

AUPE president Guy Smith said he believes Shandro made the announcement without fully understanding how to get the wage increase to workers. (Sam Martin/CBC )

Another aide at a facility on Edmonton's west side wondered why not all workers in seniors' facilities — such as cleaners, food workers, and licensed practical nurses — are receiving the top-up pay because all are working harder and dealing with additional stress and risk. 
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"We're also taking the risk of hoping that our co-workers are being cautious and taking precautions and not doing stupid things that could make other people sick, like our residents and our staff," she said.

Guy Smith said although the AUPE has been representing workers in these facilities for decades, the ministry never asked the union for any input into the program.

"I don't think the government recognizes how complex the health-care system is, especially when it comes to the private operators," Smith said. 

"There are dozens and dozens of different private operators who already have different rates of pay and different working conditions," he said, adding that "discussions with us would have been very beneficial in order to roll this out and get it to the workers who deserve it immediately, without all this confusion."

If you have information for this story, or information about another story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell

Investigative reporters

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell are reporters with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Send tips in confidence to cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca. @charlesrusnell @jennierussell_