Health-care workers across Ontario are still struggling to obtain personal protective equipment to shield them from the coronavirus, said three major unions, which are also calling on the province to instate a “universal wage” for all personal support workers.

Sharon Richer, the secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, says many workers were denied access to PPE at the beginning of the pandemic, contending it was often kept under lock and key by employers. She adds that the practice continues today, in some cases, despite assurances from the province it has a stockpile of 12.4 million pieces of PPE, such as N95 masks.

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“We’re asked to work with a deadly virus,” she says. “We’re not provided with the tools to protect ourselves and not supported if we become ill from it. We demand better from this government and our employers.”

The unions, which represent 175,000 health-care workers, say thousands of them have contracted the coronavirus throughout the pandemic and 20 have died from it. Richer says early in the pandemic there was debate about how the virus was spread and N95 masks were difficult to obtain. But as the pandemic nears its one-year anniversary, she argued there’s no excuse not to provide workers with vital protective gear. “The masks were very scarce,” Richer says. “They’re not now. . . . We shouldn’t have to go into work on a daily basis and beg for protection to keep us safe from this virus.”

Sharleen Stewart, president of the Service Employees International Union, says the unions are also asking the government to raise the wages of personal support workers in all health-care settings to $25 an hour. The pandemic has illustrated the importance of PSWs in hospitals, long-term care and in-home care, she says.

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Unifor, the health-care arm of the SEIU and the CUPE also called for a “universal wage” of $25 an hour for all PSWs regardless of what part of the provincial system they work in. A staffing study released by the province last year illustrated the disparity between PSW wages in different sectors of the health-care system. The study found PSWs in Ontario long-term care homes make an average hourly wage of $22.69; however, those delivering in-home care make an average hourly rate of $17.30.
Stewart also says working conditions for PSWs are poor, full-time opportunities and benefits are hard to come by and wages are low.

“The government . . . must raise the minimum wage for personal support workers and make it universal in every sector, whether you work in a hospital, a nursing home or in-home and community care.”

Katha Fortier of Unifor says workers will participate in the campaign in the coming weeks, as Ontario prepares to launch its 2021-2022 budget. “COVID-19 has over-stressed Ontario’s health-care resources and led to the tragic failure of the long-term care system,” she says. “But the truth is the pandemic revealed systemic problems that frontline workers have been struggling with for years.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Ontario has spent hundreds of millions to provide temporary pay hikes to workers throughout the health-care sector. In October, the province said it would provide a targeted wage increase between $2 to $3 an hour to more than 147,000 PSWs. That program, which cost $461 million, is set to expire on March 31.

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A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is monitoring the impact of that temporary wage increase for PSWs and evaluating next steps. “We will continue to engage with our sector partners to inform an approach to a wage enhancement intervention after March and in the long-term for the home and community care sector,” Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement.

The government has also spent nearly $1.1 billion on PPE and other supplies for health-care workers, she added. “We have continued to respond to emergency escalations for PPE within 24 hours to hospitals, long-term care and retirement homes and other facilities in order to support essential workers in all settings and ensuring supplies and equipment are expedited to those most in need,” Hilkene said.
Both messages are part of a province-wide public awareness campaign set to launch in workplaces on Monday.