Sudbury·Audio

Sudbury personal support worker says 'no silver lining' to be found working in long-term care during COVID-19

Personal support workers in Sudbury's long-term care homes say problems within the system need to be resolved. The issues, which they say existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, have now been amplified.

'There's no incentive to be a PSW right now,' says personal support worker

After working as a personal support care worker at Extendicare York for nearly 10 years, Christyna Cox still only makes about $22 per hour. (Submitted by Christyna Cox)

While Christyna Cox has been a personal support worker (PSW) for about nine years, she says nearly a decade on the job could never have prepared her for the pressures that have come with COVID-19. 

Cox works at Extendicare York, a long-term care home in Sudbury. She said the pandemic has caused ongoing challenges to bubble to the surface which predate the pandemic, like staffing shortages and low wages.

"We've been fighting for wage increases for years," she said, "Years and years and years." 

To help offset some of the challenges faced by PSWs across the province, earlier this month, the Ford government announced a temporary hourly wage boost of $3, for more than 147,000 workers.

'A problem'

"I'm not going to say it's too little, too late ... but the fact that [Ford] put an expiry date on it, is a problem," Cox said.  

Cox said she worries that the added strains of the pandemic and pre-existing issues like dangerously high resident-to-staff ratios and a heavy reliance on part-timers have served as the final push.

If the problems aren't fixed now, Cox says, they will discourage people from staying in the workforce — or entering it at all. 

Extendicare York is set to undergo major renovations in the next two to three years. (Benjamin Aubé/CBC)

A recent provincial staffing study backs this up. The study found that about 25 percent of PSW's with two or more years of experience end up leaving the sector every year.

"I think this is going to drive a lot of people away," she said, "There's no incentive to be a PSW right now, because the ratios are insane."

 Cox said at Extendicare York, she gets paid approximately $22 per hour, after almost 10 years of service.

She also estimates that on a good day, when the facility has a full complement, the resident-to ratio-staff sits at about 12 to one. On the more difficult days, she said it can reach 16 to one. She said that translates to about six minutes each morning to feed, change and get each of her residents washed up for the day. 

Extendicare York says it has long advocated for an increase to funding to be able to pay staff in the long-term sector higher wages across the board.

In an emailed statement to the CBC, officials said, "All our staff, including PSWs, work very hard to provide high quality care to our residents. We are very supportive the offer extended by the government of Ontario of providing pandemic pay."

It's just a very sad time right now, in what world do we want to live like this?— Christyna Cox, personal support worker at Extendicare York

Cox said she agrees with Nickel Belt NDP MPP and Health critic France Gèlinas on her push for a mandated standard of care, which would see four hours of daily hands-on care for long-term care residents. In May, Gèlinas pushed to have Bill 13, The Time to Care Act passed, which would implement a standard of one-on-one care. 

"I really wanted to be that person who helps the little old lady across the street with her groceries, or tie her shoes or tidy up her apartment ... I got into long-term care as soon as I got out of school and it was very, very real that these seniors deserve so much more," she said. 

"It's just a very sad time right now, in what world do we want to live like this?" 

Public Health Sudbury & Districts reported an outbreak of COVID-19 at St. Gabriel's Villa long term care home in Chelmsford, after an employee tested positive for the virus. (www.sjsudbury.com)

Staff retention

Melissa Wood is the union representative, as well as the co-chair of the health and safety committee at St. Gabriel's Villa in Chelmsford, a community in the Greater Sudbury Area. 

She says it's always a challenge to retain staff at the long-term care home, but it's become even more difficult because of the added stresses of COVID-19.

I would say, half of our workforce is part-time.— Melissa Wood, union representative for St. Gabriel's Villa

"We have people who — even from different  departments — who are now going to be going back to school or they're looking for other jobs," she said, "Every six months, I would say that there's probably at least 10 to 20 who will probably leave the profession." 

"I would say, half of our workforce is part-time." 

Nancy Rodrigue is a PSW at St. Gabriel's Villa. She's been a PSW for about 16 years and says she gets paid about $21 per hour. She estimates that about half the staff at the home are part-time status.

"I would never do a night shift there, you're four PSWs and you're one [registered practical nurse] with 128 residents," she said, "If you're one on each floor you're responsible for 32 [residents]."

Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas in Question Period at Queen's Park on Tuesday, demanding answers from Health Minister Eric Hoskins about reuniting an elderly Sudbury couple into long term care. (Legislative Assembly of Ontario)

'It's like were in a depression bubble'

"We're so much shorter now, than we were even before ... this pandemic." 

Sometimes, she said a person will be designated "the float" and will come round to assist PSWs on their rounds, still, Rodrigue said since the pandemic first took hold, morale among staff has dropped-off dramatically. 

"It's like we're in a depression bubble," she said, "Nobody wants to be at work right now." 

St. Gabriel's Villa did not respond to requests for an interview with the CBC. 

In a statement to the CBC, the Ministry of Long-Term Care says it's committed to supporting homes during COVID-19.

We need to figure out something to make it easy, and to make it painless and to make it not so devastating, because, it is devastating.— Christyna Cox, personal support worker at Extendicare York

Officials said this extends to ensuring a steady supply of staff available to work on an emergency basis in long-term care homes. The ministry says it's working to develop a staffing strategy for the sector by the end of the year.

As the pandemic continues, Cox said her hope for change within a system desperately in need of reform is waning, "People like to say there's a silver lining to ever bad situation and there's a good outcome in every bad situation but I don't see any good in this."

She said while the pandemic has highlighted the gaps embedded into the long-term care system, she's not confident it will actually lead to meaningful change.

"We are in a crisis and we need help. We need to figure out how we can make this better, and not only for the staff and not only for the health-care professionals that work in long-term care — but for the residents and the families as well." 

"We need to figure out something to make it easy, and to make it painless and to make it not so devastating, because, it is devastating."  

Personal care workers at long-term care homes in the north are bracing themselves for a potential resurgence of COVID-19 cases this fall. They say COVID-19 is making their working conditions even worse and they want change. The CBC's Sam Juric spoke with a Sudbury PSW about her experience. 8:20

About the Author

Sam Juric

Reporter

Sam Juric is a reporter with CBC Sudbury and can be reached at sam.juric@cbc.ca.

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