Ottawa

Critical shortage of workers hampering home care in Ottawa

Close to 3,000 people are waiting for home care from a personal support worker or a nurse in Ottawa and staffing agencies warn it could get worse with the growing shortage of health-care workers across the province. 

Wait list for home care now almost 3,000 names long

Agencies in Ontario say it's difficult to retain home-care employees who often end up leaving for better paying jobs in long-term care homes or hospitals. File photo. (Darron Cummings/The Associated Press)

Close to 3,000 people are waiting for home care from a personal support worker or a nurse in Ottawa and staffing agencies warn it could get worse with the growing shortage of health-care workers across the province. 

"I've never seen it to the degree that it is right now," said Nancy Lefebre, chief clinical executive of Saint Elizabeth Health Care (SEHC), a local home-care agency.

Demand for home-care services has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic and at the same time, job vacancies are ballooning. In Ottawa, vacancies at some agencies are as high as 30 per cent. 

"I think our patients' health and safety is what's at risk," said Lefebre about the need to fix the staff shortage. SEHC alone has 60 vacancies for personal support workers and nurses in Ottawa.

Garth Ogilvie, a registered nurse who delivers home-care services in Ottawa, said he's experienced a "jump" in the number of daily visits he makes, from an average eight to 10 each day last year, to up to 15 a day now.

"The longer days have been stressful on everybody," said Ogilvie, who said his team has had to become more efficient covering off patient needs, but he's hoping more help is on its way soon. 

Wage gap makes hiring difficult 

Agencies like the Victorian Order of Nurses say getting that help is much harder because of a large salary gap with other sectors — including long-term care homes and hospitals.

Garth Ogilvie wearing personal protective equipment on one of his visits as a home-care nurse in Ottawa. (Garth Ogilvie)

"So we bring in great folks, and then we lose them to other sectors," said Jo-Anne Poirier, CEO of Victorian Order of Nurses. 

The non-profit says it has 400 vacancies for personal support workers and 300 for nurses in Ontario and Nova Scotia.

The Ontario Community Support Association, which supports not-for-profit home care and community support service providers, estimates there's a 19 per cent wage gap between personal support workers in home care compared to the hospital sector, and an average $11 per hour salary difference for nurses.

Poirier said agencies are negotiating with the province to fix the salary disparity, and expand funding to support more families.

The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has offered a short-term increase through pandemic pay for personal support workers worth $3 per hour but it has not been enough to make up the difference, said Poirier. 

Missed appointments

Meanwhile, those who receive home care have been experiencing gaps in service. 

Laurie Alphonse, who depends on home care to live independently, said missed appointments have become chronic since the pandemic, including a period last month when no one came every Friday for almost a month.

"It's frustrating," she said because she uses a wheelchair and her care worker helps her shower and get dressed each day.  

She said she gets angry when they call to cancel appointments because it can blow a whole day of activities, and wreak havoc on the 50-year-old's sense of independence.

Lobbying the province

Ontario Community Support Association CEO Deborah Simon said she's hoping to make the point that there are cost savings through increased investment in home care.

Recent findings from the Canadian Institute for Health Information suggest 18,000 Ontario long-term care residents could be living in their own home with expanded help from home care, said Simon. 

"Every other sector is more expensive," said Simon, who says fixing home care should be part of the solution to over-burdened hospitals and the health-care system in general. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amanda Pfeffer has worked for the CBC across the country, including Montreal, Vancouver, Fredericton, Quebec City and Ottawa. She welcomes story ideas and tips at amanda.pfeffer@cbc.ca, or twitter @onthebeat1.

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