Low wages meant staffing was a 'major' problem at Herron long before pandemic, inquest hears

Recruiting and retaining staff at the privately run Herron nursing home was a challenge long before the crisis that unfolded during the pandemic's first wave, a coroner's inquest heard Tuesday. 

Manager of privately run home in Dorval, Que., says it paid $6 less and turned to temp agencies

A police officer stands outside the Herron nursing home on April 12, 2020. The home struggled to hire and retain workers prior to the pandemic, the coroner's inquest heard. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Recruiting and retaining staff at the privately run Herron nursing home was a challenge in the months leading up to the crisis that unfolded during the pandemic's first wave, a coroner's inquest heard Tuesday. 

Andrei Stanica, the former general manager of Herron, testified that staffing was a "major" issue at the home in Dorval, Que., given they offered roughly $6 less an hour than the public system.

He said Herron lost 20 workers in January 2020 after the public system of long-term care homes went on a hiring blitz. 

At the time, he was paying orderlies $14 an hour. Public long-term care homes were paying $20, he said.

In an effort to fill the gaps, Stanica said he turned to private temp agencies.

He said it was difficult given that some of the workers didn't speak English or French, but stressed he was open to hearing from residents and their families if they had an issue.

"I was there for the residents. My door was always open," Stanica told Coroner Géhane Kamel.

Kamel's mandate is to investigate deaths at six long-term care homes and one seniors' residence during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 47 residents died at Herron in the spring of 2020.

Kamel heard earlier from witnesses who said some of the workers sent by agencies to work as orderlies had no experience working in long-term care.

Coroner Géhane Kamel, right, is assisted by Dr. Jacques Ramsay, a coroner with medical training, in presiding over the inquiry. (Charles Contant/CBC)

At the height of the crisis in early April 2020, the home was acutely understaffed, personal protective equipment was lacking and residents were not provided sufficient food, water and basic care. 

Witnesses have also detailed problems at Herron prior to the pandemic.

Last week, Véronique Bossé, who was hired by Stanica as director of care, told the inquest about her struggles at Herron from the time of her hiring in September 2019 until she quit in January 2020.

In her testimony, Bossé said patient files weren't up to date, and there were chronic staff shortages at the home.

"There weren't enough workers," she said, adding that they were "underpaid for the tasks they had to do."

Manager got sick as Herron descended into crisis

Stanica said that by late February 2020 the threat of COVID-19 was more clear. He said he ordered disinfectant and hand wipes and the products were already on back order. 

On Feb. 28, he said he informed staff about new directives from the province's Health Ministry. Workers were instructed to wash their hands four times per shift.

On March 13, he made a decision to cancel outings for residents and prohibit outside visitors.

Stanica himself became ill with COVID-19 on March 27, just as Herron was entering its most difficult period. His departure, coupled with that of Bossé a few months earlier, created a leadership void during the crisis.

Officials with the local health authority, the CIUSSS de l'Ouest de l'île de Montréal, arrived at the home March 29.

Witnesses said they found only a handful of staff, the hallways dark and quiet, and residents without sufficient food and water.

On Wednesday, the owner of Herron, Samantha Chowieri, is expected to testify.