HEU care aides Roisin O’Brien, Crystal Rose and Zika Okwandu
IT’S NOT SOMETHING CARE AIDES LIKE TO DO. They don’t like to put themselves first. But the care aides at the Lynne Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver did just that recently when they voted 97 percent in favour of joining the Hospital Employees Union (HEU).
A pro union vote is not normally headline news. But what the care aides did at Lynne Valley to defeat the coronavirus is.
Lynn Valley was ground zero for the coronavirus in Canada. It was the site of the first coronavirus outbreak in the country—the worst in any seniors’ care home in Canada. The staff stayed on the job to defeat the virus. It took them 59 long days and nights to do it. Seventy-nine staff and residents got the infection. Twenty residents were killed by it. The workers never put themselves first.
“They’ve really been through a war here,” says Jennifer Whiteside, secretary business manager for the HEU.“They deserve to be recognized for the incredible job they’ve done.”
“They showed a lot of courage and compassion during this crisis to ensure good care for their residents. By joining the union, they’ve united their voices to get the kind of respect and support for themselves that they always give to those in their care.”
Appalling working conditions
What happened at Lynn Valley turned into a very bad example for the rest of the country. The employers failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, exposing both workers and residents to catastrophic risk.
Some staff stayed away from work, at first, for fear of getting infected. Relatives of residents had to step in at the beginning of March to support the remaining workers.
This led to horrific scenes playing out, with residents’ cries for help going unanswered. Others were left in urine-soaked clothing for extended periods of time.
“The moral distress for all of us at seeing what needed being done and was not being done was devastating and very traumatizing,” recalls Althea Gibb-Carsley, whose elderly relative was a resident at the home.
The “Lynn Valley experience” was repeated all across the country. In June, it was reported that over 80 percent of total coronavirus deaths in Canada came from residents of care facilities.
Low wages helped spread virus
The very structure of the privatized long-term care system helped the virus spread rapidly. Care aides in homes run by private operators, like Lynn Valley, are always underpaid and overworked. Their pay is so low that the only way to make ends meet is to work at several different facilities. The result was that infected workers without symptoms unknowingly carried the virus from one care facility to the next, vastly accelerating the spread of the disease.
The B.C. government stepped in to take over as the employer of all long-term care workers in the province on April 1 and barred the workers from working at more than one facility.
“The bottom line is, everyone will be employed by the ministry at a specific rate so they will not be penalized,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Thousands of workers will benefit. Eligible front-line workers can expect to receive a lump-sum "top up" payment equivalent to about $4 per hour for straight-time hours worked anytime from March 15 to July 4.
As of July 21, the union continued to seek clarification on who will be covered by the temporary pandemic pay program.
Union representation hard to keep
Care aides at the Lynn Valley Care Centre were represented by the HEU until 2012, when their jobs were farmed out to non-union private contractors. The same fate befell kitchen aides in 2017, when their services were also contracted out.
In B.C., about one third of the long-term care facilities are operated by for-profit companies. A report last February found that for-profit care facilities, like the Lynn Valley Care Centre, spend 17 percent less than the industry average on hourly wages. For care aides, the figure is even worse, with for-profit facilities paying wages 28 percent below the industry average.
Another finding was that for-profit care homes were guilty of massive overbilling. The report states for-profit operators were paid for 207,000 hours of direct care which they did not deliver.
“You have a for-profit company that gets public money from Vancouver Coastal Health and they can spend it in any way they want,” says Diane Harlow, a relative of a Lynne Valley Care Centre resident. “This model that we’re using for this particular facility is severely flawed.”
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