New Brunswick

Half of N.B. home care workers to be excluded from $500 federal top-up

Jeff Sparks was thrilled when he learned his home care workers would receive a $500 monthly top-up for essential workers earnings less than $18 per hour. But that elation quickly evaporated.

Advocates for disabled ask government to reconsider decision that ignores work of private home care workers

Jeff Sparks, seen here with his wife Heidi and their dog Toffi, worries that by not providing the $500 monthly top-up to home support workers who are employed privately, the provincial government is creating a two-tier system that will make it even more difficult to recruit home care workers. (Submitted by Jeff Sparks)

Jeff Sparks was thrilled when he learned his home support workers would be rewarded with a $500 monthly top-up aimed at essential care givers who have continued to work throughout the pandemic.

"It's a big deal for me because … they stayed with me during the pandemic," Sparks said of his four, full-time home care workers. "They self isolated. They took all the precautions and they really maintained my ability to be independent."

Sparks, 45, was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder similar to muscular dystrophy and uses a wheel chair. He depends on his team to be able to continue to work and to live in his Quispamsis home with his wife Heidi and their "fur baby" Toffi.

But his elation quickly evaporated when he learned this week that the Higgs government does not intend to offer the top-up to private home care workers, only to those who are employed by home care agencies.

"It's actually quite frustrating," he said of the government decision. "This is about me standing up for the rights of my caregivers who do their best to support me."

Jeff Sparks, centre, requires around-the-clock care. He has a team of home care workers but said it has been impossible to find new workers during the pandemic. (Submitted by Jeff Sparks)

Independent workers excluded

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Development said only home care workers "employed by an agency contracted or funded by the Department of Social Development" would qualify.

It goes on to say, "the Department has no way to track independent workers who may or may not have formal training or qualifications, nor would we have any way to confirm their eligibility to the program."

A statement from the office of Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard, said the $500 top-up will be paid only to home support workers employed by agencies. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Sparks, who is a human resources professional, argues the assertion that Social Development has no way to track private home support workers is simply not correct.

He manages his own care with funding provided by the Department of Social Development. Each month Sparks submits logs to government detailing who has provided care to him during the month.

"I'm basically like an agency," Sparks said. "I get a monthly cheque deposited in my bank. I do all the payroll and at the end of each month I have each of my caregivers sign a report with how many hours they worked."

As for questions about "formal training or qualifications," Sparks said the workers he hires are generally better trained than the average home support worker because he trains them to meet his unique medical needs.

"I'd be more comfortable with them than I would be having someone come to me from an agency that didn't receive specific training by me."

Private workers only option for many

In a news release on May 20, the provincial government outlined the program that will provide a monthly top-up of approximately $500 for 16 weeks for essential front-line workers, including home support.

This is just a major oversight.- Haley Flaro, Ability N.B.

There was no mention of excluding private home support workers. The only caveat was that in order to qualify, people must earn less than $18 per hour. Sparks said all of his workers would qualify.

He worries the government's decision will impact his ability to recruit staff, which is already "a nightmare," and said it will create "two classes of employees who do the same job."

Haley Flaro, executive director of Ability New Brunswick, said news that private home care workers are being left out is very disappointing and raises huge concerns about inequity.

Haley Flaro, executive director of Ability New Brunswick, estimates private home support workers make up more than half of all support workers and deserve the $500 top-up being provided by government just as much as workers employed by agencies. (CBC)

She estimates 50 per cent of the home care funded by Social Development is performed by private workers, and calls the decision not to provide the $500 monthly top-up to everyone a "disincentive" in a province where there is already a home support worker shortage.

"If private workers disappeared tomorrow every hospital would be overflowing, every special care home, every long term care home. Our health system would be just annihilated."

Flaro points out that private workers are the only option for people who live in rural areas that are not served by agencies.

Sparks said, in his experience, agencies simply don't have enough staff to serve people who require 24-hour attendant care, like him.

Flaro said approximately 60 per cent of her clients at Ability N.B. depend on private care workers, and she hopes there is still time for the provincial government to change its mind.

"It's creating and isolating and alienating these private workers," she said. "This is just a major oversight."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

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