‘Respect us. Protect us. Pay us.’ say 175,000 united health care workers


HEALTH CARE WORKERS WANT REAL RESPECT. The kind that goes beyond words. The kind that comes with better COVID protections at work and pay that matches the risks they take to keep going in to work at all. Unions representing 175,000 health care workers in Ontario have a new “Respect us. Protect us. Pay us.” campaign to get that kind of concrete respect.

The campaign by Unifor, the Service Employees International Union, and Canadian Union of Public Employees comes as the COVID-19 roars into its third wave, pushing frontline workers beyond exhaustion.

“We’re asked to work with a deadly virus,” commented Sharon Richer, secretary treasurer of CUPE’s Ontario Coalition Hospital Unions. “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.”

Nearly 20,000 health care workers have contracted COVID-19 at work and 20 have died. Although health care staff were entitled to an N95 mask they couldn’t get one from their employers. The masks are kept under lock and key. Despite the provincial government claim that it has a stockpile of 12.4 million pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The unions point to the continuing failure to provide frontline health care workers with a reliable supply of PPE, more than a year into the pandemic, as just one more obvious proof of how little frontline health care workers really count. Low wages are another proof.

Fair wages for PSWs

Personal Service Workers (PSW) are the backbone of our health care response to COVID-19. They deserve to get a raise. It’s so obvious the government of Ontario even gave them a temporary one: it paid a temporary wage increase of between $2 to $3 an hour to more than 147,000 personal support workers starting last October.  These wage top ups are now set to expire on June 30

However, the workers point out that this temporary measure still leaves them fighting to make ends meet, and fails to overcome the unfair treatment experienced by PSWs who work in the community.

According to a study sponsored by the province, PSWs working in long-term care (LTC)  facilities in Ontario earn $22.69 an hour on average—a skinny 61 cents an hour more than the 2019 living wage for Toronto.

At the other end of the scale, PSWs working in private homes earn $17.30 an hour on average—a full $5 an hour less than PSWs working in LTC.

Wage rates don’t tell the whole story, however. Many PSWs are employed on part-time contracts, which reduces their hours and paycheques at the end of the month. Others are placed in LTC facilities by staffing agencies, whose fees come out of what workers could be paid and who provide legal protections for employers to deny workers benefits and job protection.

Such poor working conditions are forcing many PSWs to leave the profession. Last year, a report by the Ontario Health Coalition described the PSW shortage as a “crisis.” According to the unions more than 20,000 PSWs are needed in long-term care and the community.

These staffing shortages have contributed to the terrible conditions in long-term care homes. As of late March, 3,891 long-term care residents had died from COVID-19, out of a total death toll in Ontario at the time of 7,241. In a survey, over 60 percent of nurses working in long-term care facilities that experienced large outbreaks said they were suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Respect us. Protect us. Pay us.

The unions’ Respect us. Protect us. Pay us. campaign proposes these four ways to make what we all agree we owe frontline health care workers something  more than just words:

  • Extend $4 pandemic pay to all health care workers and make it permanent

  • Provide easy access to all the PPE that health care workers need to work safely

  • Provide paid sick leave for COVID-19-related illnesses and provide pay while staff await COVID-19 test results or are in isolation

  • Reverse the staff exodus from health care by turning exploitative low-wage, part-time work into full-time jobs with benefits and a living wage of $25.00 an hour.

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