Nursing homes across Ontario will share an extra $270 million to hire 4,000 more nurses and personal support workers by March as Premier Doug Ford’s government works toward four hours of daily care per resident in 2025.
A total of $4.9 billion in extra annual funding announced Tuesday for this fiscal year and the next three was welcomed as a historic investment, but hiring won’t be easy amid a shortage of health-care workers after 19 gruelling months dealing with COVID-19, the industry warned.
“We are just losing so many staff, and it’s not just long-term care, it’s the hospitals as well,” said chief executive Donna Duncan of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, representing about 70 per cent of the province’s 626 nursing homes.
“The money will be a moot point if there are people who will not come in to work in long-term care,” she added. “Doesn’t matter if it’s full-time or part-time, if people don’t feel supported and don’t feel valued and don’t feel safe, quite honestly, then they’re not going to commit.”
Almost 4,000 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19, More than 7,300 workers have been infected and 13 died, mostly in the first two waves before vaccinations became widely available.
Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said the extra funding — rising to an additional $1.82 billion annually four years from now — will lift care levels from the current average of two hours and 45 minutes of hands-on care for each resident daily.
He pledged to enshrine the four-hour standard in law under legislation to be introduced this fall, and called on the industry to rely less on part-time staff and more on full-timers to attract a more stable workforce. At least 27,000 new workers are needed to meet the four-hour target.
“Obviously, we need more nurses … we need more PSWs,” said Phillips, who last week announced COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory for nursing-home workers starting Nov. 15. “They need to want to work in an environment where they feel appreciated, so I think this is an area that the home operators need to be looking at.”
The extra money this year is enough for a typical 160-bed nursing home to hire six more registered nurses, 12 more registered practical nurses and 25 personal support workers, improving care to about three hours a day.
“It is putting dollars exactly where they need to be — increasing front-line staff to improve care for residents,” said Lisa Levin of AdvantAge, which represents not-for-profit, municipal and charitable nursing homes.
Critics said fixing staff shortages in nursing homes remains an uphill climb, and urged the government to reach the four hours of care sooner, making for less onerous workloads for staff and better living conditions for residents.
“The staffing crisis is being driven by poor working conditions and low pay and will continue until these are improved,” said Green Leader Mike Schreiner. “Hiring more staff without addressing the appalling working conditions will result in a revolving door that benefits no one.”
Phillips said there are no quick fixes to a long-standing problem because nurses and personal support workers can’t be trained and recruited overnight as the government builds more nursing homes and renovates others to modern standards. Supported by government subsidies for tuition, thousands of PSWs are currently in training at community colleges and expected to enter the workforce later this fall.
The minister suggested permanent wage increases are coming for nursing home PSWs but did not provide specifics.
“We’re going to make sure the wages are commensurate with the great work that these individuals do,” Phillips said of PSWs, whom Ford has repeatedly called “heroes” for helping nursing home residents get dressed, bathed, toileted and fed.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said she would give PSWs a permanent $5 hourly wage increase if elected premier next June 2.
“Throughout this pandemic, workers in long-term care have risked their lives and put in tireless hours caring for our most vulnerable seniors. Staff have been leaving the sector in droves, complaining of burnout, poor pay and unsafe working conditions.”
The NDP and others have been pressing the government for increased nursing home funding to ensure more PSWs and nurses can have full-time positions with benefits so they don’t have to cobble together full-time hours by working at several homes.
“We are losing workers from the sector faster than we can train and recruit them and we will not be able to reach our targets to implement a four-hour care standard without a robust strategy that focuses on making long-term care a sector where people want to work,” said Candace Rennick of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
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