New Brunswick

Staff shortages at heart of nursing home problems

Though the contract dispute involving some 4,000 nursing home workers across New Brunswick is all about wages, many argue the issue brewing beneath the surface is the shortage of workers themselves.

Workload issues have been brewing for years, with too few people trained for the jobs and too few wanting them

Janice Melanson, a licensed practical nurse in Moncton, filled her car with posters and protested during her day off this week. (Gabrielle Fahmy)

Though the labour dispute involving more than 4,000 nursing home workers across New Brunswick is all about wages, many argue the issue that's been brewing beneath the surface is the shortage of workers themselves.

There's hardly an area of New Brunswick's health-care system that's not fallen victim to it.

Specialists, family physicians, nurses, attendants — you name it. In hospitals and nursing homes alike, there are simply not enough to go around.

The shortfall is clearly evident in nursing homes, where workers argue the jobs can seem so unattractive, it's hard to get anyone interested in them.

"Right now, people walk in the door, they look at it, they last a couple days, and they say 'I'm not doing this,'" union spokesperson Patrick Roy said at a news conference last week.

"'I'll go work somewhere else for less, or I'll go work at the hospital for the exact same wage.'" 

There are about 200 unfilled positions at nursing homes across the province. (Shutterstock)

Though the parties sit on opposite sides of the bargaining table, it's an issue workers and employers have both agreed must be addressed.

The nursing home association's latest numbers show there are as many as 70 licensed practical nurse positions and 103 resident attendant jobs unfilled in nursing homes across the province.

That's an average of two to three vacancies per facility, and that's without counting unfilled positions for registered nurses, who fall under a different union.

Empty beds

Moncton's Villa du Repos is perhaps the perfect example of the pandemic affecting nursing homes.

The 126-bed facility announced in 2017 it had built a new wing with 60 beds to help with the hundreds of seniors waiting in hospital for placement, but it was unable to open those beds for lack of staff.

Since then, owner Ronald LeBlanc has launched a six-week paid training program for resident attendants, something he called an investment.

More than a dozen beds sit empty at Villa du Repos, despite hundreds of seniors in hospital waiting for one. (CBC)

In exchange, students have to agree to work at Villa du Repos or Shediac's Villa Providence, which LeBlanc also oversees, for a minimum of one year.

He also no longer makes it a requirement for attendants to have a high school diploma.

LeBlanc has trained 35 people through the program.

'Won't hold my breath'

Licensed practical nurse Janice Melanson, who has worked at Villa du Repos for 22 years, said the training has helped things.

Still not enough though, as today 15 of the new beds remain closed.

She, like her union, has been arguing better wages are the key to helping ease staff shortages.

When she started working at the home, she had half a dozen residents to look after. Now, she has at least 10 per shift and said their needs tend to be heavier.

"I like to be optimistic, but I won't hold my breath," she said of the current negotiations, noting workers have had the same demands for two decades.

Melanson and many of her co-workers protested working conditions this week. (CBC)

There's only a few cents difference between what'd she'd make per hour at a hospital, and the same goes for the other workers — the attendants, kitchen and housekeeping staff — involved in the contract dispute.

But workers have been arguing the nursing home jobs are more physically demanding.

They have also said the one per cent annual pay increase 10,000 hospital workers agreed to in 2017 — which nursing home workers were also offered by the province last spring but rejected — had barely passed then, and many are still unhappy about it.

"You could almost see the writing was on the wall," Roy said to defend the union's demand for a raise that matches cost of living.

Not unique to province

New Brunswick's situation may be worse because of its aging population and poor finances, but frustrated nursing home workers are hardly unique to this province.

In several other jurisdictions, including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, nursing home workers have voted in favour of strikes in recent years over issues of wages and workload.

In most cases though, a strike was usually avoided.

But not in every case.

In 2016, workers from 42 private nursing homes in Quebec walked off the job. They held rotating strikes for months, asking their pay be increased from an average of $12.50 an hour to $15.00. In the end, workers at most homes got what they wanted.

Some homes not involved in dispute

The Canadian Union of Public Employees may be in the spotlight right now, but the problems it is bringing to the table — worker shortages and workload issues — are across the board.

CUPE represents 4,100 workers at 46 private non-for profit nursing homes. Of the 22 other nursing homes in New Brunswick, workers at six are represented by the New Brunswick Union, workers at 10 are not unionized, and CUPE represents workers at six for-profit Shannex nursing homes.

The wages are comparable.

For instance, a new licensed practical nurse involved in the current dispute makes $22.90 an hour.

This the same, to the cent, she or he would make working at most homes where workers are represented by the New Brunswick Union.

Same for the Shannex for-profit homes involved with CUPE

Wages for non-union nursing home workers are not publicly available.

About the Author

Gabrielle Fahmy is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been a journalist with the CBC since 2014.

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