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Protecting Personal Support Workers in COVID-19

Front-facing community health workers need protective equipment to do their jobs during COVID-19

Dear Minister Elliott,

We write to express concern about the deaths of personal support workers related to COVID-19. On May 6th, Mr. Leonard Rodriquez became the fifth personal support worker to die of COVID-19 in Ontario. Mr. Rodriquez’s family told reporters that in the final days before he stopped working he was forced to buy masks at the dollar store, as he was unable to access adequate PPE consistently on the job.

We are deeply concerned about reports of inadequate PPE for essential workers in front facing roles. Our members continue to report difficulties in accessing PPE from their own supply chains as well as through the regional/provincial tables tasked with allocations.  

PSWs play a vital role in Ontario's COVID-19 response. They provide front-line services at numerous points of access within the system, including hospitals, Long Term Care facilities, retirement homes, community residential settings, homecare, and private residences. The range of services provided include personal care, palliative care, rehabilitation support, mobility assistance, medication assistance, emotional support and companionship, providing relief and support for caregivers, implementing client’s care plans, facilitating independent living and so much more. PSWs support an already overburdened Canadian healthcare system to free up vital physician and nursing resources to address more acute care related issues.

The disproportionate representation of PSWs among healthcare workers who have died to date makes it clear that too little is being done to support these essential workers and reduce their risk of exposure to hazards. This is causing fear and anxiety for this workforce around their own safety and that of their families. Without dedicated healthcare workers, our health system will crumble. PSWs are key members of this healthcare work force. They care for the most vulnerable in our communities, and yet they are not adequately supported while doing their work.

We are concerned that the province is not reporting about the deaths of healthcare workers stationed in sectors outside hospitals and LTC facilities. We welcome recent steps the province has taken to share data on the number of number of healthcare workers testing positive for the virus; we urge the province to also transparently report on healthcare worker deaths.

Additionally, we are concerned about working conditions for PSWs. Low wages across the sector have been an ongoing concern. To earn a living wage and support themselves many PSWs work in multiple locations. Additionally, there are salary inequities among PSW roles across the healthcare system; PSWs working in hospital environments receive higher pay and better compensation packages compared to PSWs working in community environments.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lack of consistency in the funding and support decisions being made by MCCSS, MOH and MLTC. For example, there is a special funding setup for MCCSS providers that support adults with developmental disabilities. Organizations under this funding umbrella received permission to use year-end surpluses creatively which resulted in ‘danger’ pay and pandemic bonuses. The MLTC emergency reserve fund to the LTC sector to support emergency orders to limit staff to one employer could be used to top up PTE staff to FTE compensation; meanwhile, the funding the MOH provided to MH&A providers could be used for ‘danger’ pay. To do their work well, all PSWs must be appropriately supported. Standardization across all funding organizations must be prioritized.

Provincial projections suggest that COVID-19 will be an ongoing concern for several months. Given this context- comprehensive supports are needed for PSWs. The province must act now to ensure that PSWs have adequate PPE and that there is wage standardization across the sector to reduce precarity and risk for workers.

The last few months have made it clear that PSWs are at increased risk and they are being left behind. Urgent interventions are needed to address this disproportionate impact.

Dr. Kate Mulligan, Acting CEO, Alliance for Healthier Communities

Deborah Simon, CEO, Ontario Community Support Association

Friday, May 15, 2020