Unions demand equal pay for Alberta long-term care home workers during pandemic

The Alberta government should equalize worker pay and take control of long-term care home staffing across the province during the pandemic, union leaders say.

New rule takes effect Thursday restricting health-care workers to one site

On Thursday, new rules take effect that restrict all Alberta health-care workers to one site. (Interstid/Shutterstock)

The Alberta government should equalize worker pay and take control of staffing at long-term care centres across the province during the pandemic, union leaders say.

Their calls come as health-care leaders race to prepare for a new rule taking effect Thursday restricting every health-care employee to just one facility.

At long-term care and continuing care centres, auxiliary hospitals and seniors' lodges, the one-site rule will be an organizational feat Guy Smith describes as "stirring up an ants' nest and watching everybody run around crazily trying to find out where they belong."

The president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) said last week about a third of the union's 17,000 care-home workers have jobs at more than one facility.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents about another 5,000 workers at provincial long-term care centre, and says about 40 per cent of them have multiple jobs.

Calls for a "one worker, one site" rule came from unions and private continuing care centres alike after coronavirus outbreaks at some facilities had tragic consequences. As of Friday, 21 residents of Calgary's  McKenzie Towne Long Term Care Home had died from COVID-19.

Older people and those with pre-existing health conditions are particularly susceptible to becoming gravely ill with the disease. Health officials worry workers could unintentionally convey the virus from one facility to another.

A sign hangs on the fence outside the McKenzie Towne Long Term Care Home in southeast Calgary. The residence and care home has been the site of Alberta's deadliest COVID-19 outbreak to date. (Jennifer Wiebe)

On April 10, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, ordered that health-care workers and contractors must only work in one health-care facility as of Thursday, April 23.

But Alberta unions would like the province take its cue from B.C., where the chief public health officer in March took control over staffing of all continuing care facilities — public and private — for six months.

Multiple jobs, multiple pay rates

Smith said Alberta long-term care workers are chronically underpaid for the jobs they perform. It's what leads employees to take jobs at two, three or sometimes four facilities to earn a living, he said.

There's also a patchwork of facility operators, including Alberta Health Services and its subsidiaries, Covenant Health, Covenant Care and privately owned facilities. The gaps in pay and benefits between employers can be substantial, Smith said.

The workers also take on multiple jobs because full-time positions are hard to come by, the union leaders say.

At Alberta Health Services, less than a quarter of the 2,900 long-term care workers are employed full time. Approximately 45 per cent are employed part-time, while 31 per cent are casual workers.

At Covenant Health and Covenant Care facilities, 19 per cent of employees are full time. Of the 4,125 workers, 47 per cent work part-time and 34 per cent are casual workers.

It's demanding emotionally. It's demanding physically.- Rory Gill, CUPE Alberta president

It's precarious, difficult work, said Rory Gill, president of CUPE Alberta. Members work as licensed practical nurses, health-care aides, housekeepers, maintenance, food services and in other roles.

Many are women. Many are new Canadians. And right now, several of them are working double shifts to fill the gaps while co-workers get sick or self-isolate, Gill said last week.

"It's demanding emotionally. It's demanding physically. And right now, it's almost unimaginable what people are going through with the stress," he said.

If workers are limited to one site to protect residents and themselves, they need to be assured they can make enough to live, the union leaders say.

Gill hopes Alberta Health Services will be tasked with controlling staffing of facilities provincewide.

Rules of the game

Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping set some ground rules for the temporary approach in an April 10 ministerial order.

It says the centres must consider employees' preference, the facility's need and what's in the best interest of the health sector when deciding where a worker should be placed.

An employee's other employers must put them on a leave of absence and can't terminate them during the pandemic.

Employers must schedule workers for the total number of hours they would normally have worked, and if they can't, they must give the worker first dibs on any overtime.

Employers must continue providing employees with benefits, even when they're deployed to another location.

Wayne Morishita, executive director of the Alberta Continuing Care Association, said private facilities have been working ceaselessly to meet the Thursday deadline.

Deciding where employees should be based depends on several factors, including where workers spend most of their time now.

His members are sending data about every employee to a secure Alberta Health web portal, Morishita said last week.

Private facilities are looking for more flexibility from the government to make it work well, he said. They want the ability to put non-unionized workers into unionized positions, he said. Employers are also looking to laid-off hospitality sector workers as a potential source of employees.

"There needs to be recruitment, there needs to be added flexibility of scheduling and we need to ensure that we've got adequate staffing at all sites," Morishita said. "So it's a very complex puzzle."

He opposes the adoption of a provincial pay grid during the pandemic.

Care homes also want provincial and federal governments to pitch in extra funding to cover the costs of additional staffing needed for more thorough cleaning, routinely monitoring residents for COVID-19 symptoms as well as extra protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

As of last week, workers interacting with patients must wear masks at all times.

Tom McMillan, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, said Hinshaw has asked all employers to submit lists of staff to help paint a provincial picture of who they've got available.

Exactly who will be in charge of staffing provincially wasn't clear on Friday.

Organizations across the province are working to "implement a co-ordinated approach" to achieve one-site staffing, McMillan said in an email.

A standardized pay grid is absent from the current government plan. McMillan said workers should be paid the going wages at the sites where they are placed.

As for extra funding for public and private care homes to weather the pandemic, McMillan said the government is still gauging what they need and expects to "announce a decision shortly."

Health Minister Tyler Shandro's office provided a similar statement.

Gill and Smith said they hope the pandemic is the beginning of a movement toward more appreciation and better compensation for the people who care for the most elderly and vulnerable Albertans.

"They just want to be able to do a good job and make sure that their residents and patients are looked after and cared for, but they also need to make sure that they're looked after as well," Smith said.

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca


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