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Ontario to table legislation making PSW wage increase permanent: Ford

The Ontario government is planning to soon make permanent an hourly wage increase for personal support workers that was brought in during the pandemic.

Wage increase for health workers is currently set to expire on March 31

The Ontario government has said in the past that its temporary wage increase program was aimed at helping to stabilize, attract and retain the health workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The Ontario government is planning to soon make permanent an hourly wage increase for personal support workers that was brought in temporarily and extended multiple times during the pandemic.

Premier Doug Ford confirmed the plan on Tuesday, saying health workers who "stepped up to the plate" in settings like long-term care during COVID-19 deserve it.

"For years, they were ignored, they were underpaid, overworked, and we acknowledged that by giving them the $3 an hour increase. We are going to make it permanent," Ford said at an announcement about medical school education in Brampton, Ont.

"It's well-deserving. They work so hard and we all saw it firsthand."

A senior government source previously told The Canadian Press that the government intends to introduce legislation on the matter this month.

The wage increase for health workers is currently set to expire on March 31, after being repeatedly extended for months at a time since COVID-19 hit the province two years ago.

The source said workers in long-term care and community care will retain pay increases of $3 per hour and workers in public hospitals will keep a $2 per hour raise.

There is a base wage rate of $16.50 per hour for personal support workers in Ontario before the increase is applied.

The wage increase will cover approximately 158,000 workers who provide publicly funded services in home and community care, long-term care, public hospitals and social services.

The government has said in the past that the temporary program was aimed at helping to stabilize, attract and retain the health workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ford had promised that his government would keep the pay raise for personal support workers, but he had not confirmed when or how that would happen.

Too little, too late

But those affected by the permanent change said it's coming too late and won't address the broader challenges plaguing the health-care workforce.

The president of a union that represents personal support workers said she hadn't heard of the planned permanent wage bump before reading it in the news.

Sharleen Stewart of SEIU Healthcare said public details of the plan don't address sustainable, long-term solutions to attracting and retaining workers, noting the absence of details about paid sick leave, guaranteed full-time jobs, poor work conditions and other issues. She also said the permanent wage increase will keep disparities between health workers in different fields.

"It's definitely a start, but it does not fix the problem," she said. "Unfortunately it's still not a sustainable and intelligent plan to address what's not working in healthcare today."

Jodi Fenlong-Verburg, who works as a home care personal support worker in eastern Ontario, said the government waited too long to make the change permanent.

"The uncertainty of knowing if it was good to stay has put a damper on people trying to plan their lives," she said from Brockville, Ont.

The Ontario government says it will make the wage increases for PSWs brought in during the pandemic permanent. A PSW student at Cambrian College is seen in this photo. (Submitted by Cambrian College)

Fenlong-Verburg said the $3 wage increase isn't enough to make a living wage given the rising cost of living, including fuel costs that aren't fully reimbursed for her work travel.

"I absolutely love it, that's the only reason why I'm still hanging on. I've got hopes that the government's going to make it better for us," she said. "This should be considered a career."

Keeping workers still a challenge

The move to permanently raise wages will be the latest by the Ontario's Progressive Conservative government to incentivize the health sector workforce to stay on the job after a grueling two years of COVID-19.

Retention of nurses and other health workers has been raised as a key issue throughout the provincial pandemic battle, with unions citing concerns over burnout and low wages.

This month the province announced a $763 million plan offering nurses incentive pay of up to $5,000 per person to encourage job retention.

Healthcare unions at the time called the plan a "temporary fix" ahead of an expected June election.

Workers' groups have also called on Ford's government to repeal a bill that caps annual public sector wage increases at one per cent.

News of the planned wage increase Tuesday came as the government announced other funding steps aimed at beefing up the health-care system.

Ford was in Brampton to tout support for a new Ryerson University medical school slated to open in the city by 2025, and announce the government's plans to add hundreds of medical student positions across the province over the next five years.

"We can do more to build a stronger, more resilient health system. A big part of that is ensuring we're training the next generation of world class health professionals," he said.

Meanwhile, Long-Term Care Minister Paul Calandra announced that the province would spend $673 million on long-term care homes this year to shore up staffing. That pledge is part of the government's goal to provide an average of four hours of direct care to long-term care residents by 2025.

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