Nfld. & Labrador

Home support sector strained as growing number of workers self-isolate

A growing number of home support workers in Newfoundland and Labrador are giving up their duties in order to self-isolate from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government relaxes some hiring requirements as agencies try to maintain support for seniors and others in need

The Home Care Association of Newfoundland and Labrador says a growing number of workers are deciding to self-isolate in fear of contracting the COVID-19 disease. Some 7,000 home-care workers, working for nearly three dozen agencies, provide in-home supports, mostly to seniors. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A growing number of home support workers are giving up their duties to self-isolate from the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a strain as private agencies try to continue providing support to seniors and other vulnerable members of society.

"Agency operators are feeling that now because with limited staff it makes it difficult to ensure clients get the care they require," Neil Tremblett, president of the Home Care Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, told CBC News on Tuesday. The association represents most of the home support agencies in the province.

Tremblett could not provide numbers on how many workers have left their jobs, but said the situation is worsening as fear spreads about the new coronavirus, and the number of people infected continues to increase.

"It has a big impact on us and right now we're seeing it's changing on an hourly basis," Tremblett said.

But CBC spoke with a manager at one St. John's-area agency who said only a "small fraction" of workers have not reported for duty. The manager, who asked not to be named, said that could change quickly if the spread of COVID-19 escalates.

"Right now these are safe places," the manager said, citing a suite of measures being taken to protect workers and their clients, including frequent handwashing, regular cleaning, and tighter restrictions on contact between workers and clients.

If a worker is out there, we want to ensure that if they need to be home, they're home. But if they should be out working and providing that service, then obviously they can do [it] safely for themselves and their clients.- Neil Tremblett

There are an estimated 7,000 home support workers in the province, working for nearly three-dozen agencies. The workers provide a wide range of in-home supports, ranging from feeding and cleaning to nursing care. The clients are mostly seniors.

Self-isolation based on 'misinformation'

Tremblett said he doesn't believe any employees or their clients have COVID-19, but he said many workers are not reporting for duty.

In many cases, he said, their decisions are based on misinformation being spread on social media.

"It is something we are seeing a spike in," he said.

In response to the growing exodus of workers, the provincial government has temporarily relaxed hiring requirements such as the need to have first-aid training. And instead of a certificate of good conduct from the police, prospective workers can provide an affidavit saying they do not have a criminal background.

With so many people being laid off as companies downsize because of the ongoing public health emergency, Tremblett said there are opportunities in home support work.

"We're trying to avail of these individuals who would like to work, and are willing to help the vulnerable in our community," he said.

Tremblett said many workers believe they will be compensated if they stay home, but he explained they have to be following the proper guidelines for that to happen.

"If a worker is out there, we want to ensure that if they need to be home, they're home. But if they should be out working and providing that service, then obviously they can do [it] safely for themselves and their clients."

Tremblett said his association is working with the government to ensure workers have the right information, which includes the development of a document that answers a wide array of questions.

Asking for financial aid

"As it stands right now we're managing it, but our concern is that if we don't get on top of this right now it will turn into a critical stage when it comes to staffing," he said.

The association has called on the government to provide financial aid so companies can hire administrative staff to help with the placement process for the growing number of clients, and hire new workers.

Tremblett said agencies are being inundated with calls from concerned workers and clients.

"It is quickly evolving, and time is not on our side," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.