Sudbury

Northern Ontario nursing home unions fear vaccine mandate could lead to staffing shortages

Dozens of long-term care workers in northeastern Ontario will soon have to decide between keeping their jobs or getting the COVID-19 shot. And some worry that the province's new vaccine mandate will leave nursing homes even more short-staffed. 

Long-term care workers concerned that no proof of vaccination required from nursing home visitors

After allowing nursing home workers to be regularly tested for COVID-19, the province is now requiring them all to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Dozens of long-term care workers in northeastern Ontario will soon have to decide between keeping their jobs or getting the COVID-19 shot.

And some worry that the province's new vaccine mandate will leave nursing homes even more short-staffed. 

"Nobody wins here," says Amanda Farrow-Giroux, president of CUPE Local 1339 representing some 120 workers at Eastholme in Powassan. 

"You have people that are going to be unemployed, you have people are employed that are going to be asked to work three times as hard at something they were already doing and the people who really suffer are the residents."

Eastholme administrator Odelia Callery says about 25 of her 180 workers are not fully vaccinated although some have announced their intention to the get the shots since the province set a deadline of Nov. 15. 

"Some people who are undecided will ultimately have to make that choice and it might be a good thing," she says. 

But Callery says she worries her 128-bed nursing home, owned by 14 small municipalities in the area, will be tougher to run if some workers walk instead of getting the shot.

"It is tough to get everything done with the current level of staffing," she says. 

"I hope this is going to be settling down relatively soon once we have all of our staff vaccinated."

Long-term care residents and workers were some of the first in Ontario to have access to COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020, but rates for employees in many homes remain below 90 per cent. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Before the provincial announcement of a policy switch on Oct. 1, long-term care workers who did not disclose their vaccination status were allowed to get regular testing instead.

Now, those workers are facing being sent home without pay. At the eight Extendicare homes in the northeast, that deadline is Oct. 12. 

The company says the staff vaccination rates range from 84 per cent at Extendicare Tri-Town in Haileybury up to 96 per cent at Extendicare Timmins. 

Cathy Humalamaki, president of Unifor Local 1359 representing thousands of long-term care workers in Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma, says about five per cent of her members are not vaccinated, but some who have been holding out for months have recently relented. 

"They're not happy about it, but they have to be able to support their family, so they're being forced into it. It's against everything they believe," she says.

"I can see the point from both sides, it's not an easy choice for anybody." 

Humalamaki says her union will fight attempts to terminate unvaccinated workers and will instead push for them to be put on unpaid leave only when there is an outbreak at their home. 

Unions for long-term care workers in northeastern Ontario are pushing against termination for unvaccinated employees. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

She says she's "very angry" that the province is still allowing unvaccinated visitors into nursing homes. 

"There's no way the employer should be letting anybody in the building without being double vaccinated and if they are, then they have no right to terminate staff for not being vaccinated," Humalamaki says. 

Rod Phillips, Ontario's minister of long-term care, says experts tell him that staff are a greater risk of spreading COVID in a long-term home and that impeding visitors could impact the mental health of residents.

He says he has heard from a few homes concerned that the vaccine mandate will lead to a staffing shortage after Nov. 15. 

"But their bigger concern was an outbreak coming from an unvaccinated staff member that would not only affect residents, but could take 12, even 24 staff out of commission," says Phillips, pointing to the $270 million recently committed for additional staffing. 

"Nothing in long-term care is easy."

Farrow-Giroux says it's been a "heart-wrenching" time for her members at Eastholme who have watched the pandemic "rip the many Band-aids" off the long-term care system. 

She says after working short-staffed for years and pushing the province to set minimum care standards, her members now find themselves the target of provincial policies. 

"I think the focus of the provincial government is in all the wrong places," says Farrow-Giroux. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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