More Than Thanks
/ Author: Ian DeWaard
/ Categories: Guide magazine, Health Care /
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More Than Thanks

By Ian DeWaard, Ontario Director

During the COVID-19 lockdown last spring, we lost a family member. After several weeks in isolation at Shalom Manor, a retirement home where he was well cared for by CLAC members, my grandfather suffered a fall. That led to surgery from which he never recovered. The loss was difficult, but most troubling was that no one from our family could be with him during his final days.

This story of separation and forced isolation during the final days of a loved one’s life has played out for thousands of Canadians in the past months. It’s in these moments that the constraints of this pandemic are experienced most pointedly.

Throughout the pandemic, front-line healthcare workers have been heralded as heroes for the bravery and self-sacrifice they’ve demonstrated doing their high-risk, stress-filled jobs. I can think of nothing more noble or important than the personal touch and human contact they provide to the elderly and sick in their dying moments. For this—and many other things they do—we owe them an incredible debt.

But the Healthcare Hero handle can wear thin for front-line workers. Pandemic pay for essential workers in Ontario, Alberta, and BC has or will soon be ending. But pandemic working conditions continue. Collective agreement rights in Ontario are still suspended due to emergency orders, with workers still not permitted to hold more than one job. Some employers, prompted by fear, invite unnecessary conflict by using their temporary powers unreasonably (e.g., forcing a worker back from sick leave, prohibiting volunteering).

A common concern among CLAC members is that employers and the authorities were simply unprepared for this pandemic. In the early days, PPE was hard to get and sometimes kept under lock and key to preserve inventory. Daily it seemed, protocols and rules changed on how to protect against the virus’s spread. These experiences shook workers’ confidence in their employers and public health authorities.

Recently, more than 600 Paramed Home Health Care Inc. workers in Ontario voted to join CLAC. Their primary reason for joining was because they felt unsupported and unprotected.

While healthcare workers deserve our highest praise, thanks alone isn’t enough. Wages and working conditions need to offer them a chance to earn a living. In Ontario, legislation introduced in 2019 caps wages for most healthcare workers at one percent annually for three years. Because of recurring government-imposed wage caps and freezes, inflation-adjusted annual wages in long term care are $3,000 less than 10 years ago.

COVID has placed incredible strain on our front-line caregivers, but it has also roused our collective attention and awareness to the importance of their work. Members I’ve spoken to say they’ve experienced increased appreciation. One steward said the most rewarding part of her job is helping patients navigate anxious moments. Because hospital patients cannot have a loved one present, it’s important for her to sit with a patient, even just for a moment. It’s an act that is deeply appreciated.

Others recount how small gestures in their communities, like free coffee from the local coffee shop, have shown them they’re valued in their neighbourhoods. Ray, a very passionate homecare worker, says that everywhere he goes, patients and family members make extra effort to thank him for the work he does.

The good news is that wage adjustments—which CLAC has been advocating for—are finally coming for front-line care workers. The government has also listened to our calls to allow personal support workers to learn while they work, reducing their cost and time to acquire credentials.

Much more needs to be done to make work better for front-line workers. But the silver lining in COVID-19 is that it has finally caused some significant and long-needed shifts in our attitudes and in government policy about long term care.

CLAC has been proud to advocate for members in healthcare. We’re energized by the recent positive developments and encouraged that a strong, responsible union voice can make a difference.

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