·  Windsor Star

Our Unvalued Heroes: Care Workers Confront Heartbreak, Death and PTSD

The following opinion column by USW Ontario Director Marty Warren was published in the Windsor Star.

COVID-19 outbreaks have to date claimed dozens of lives and infected hundreds of vulnerable residents and staff of long-term care homes in the Windsor-Essex County region. Hundreds more deaths and thousands of infections have been recorded at care homes across Ontario.

This unprecedented crisis has exposed the avoidable tragedy of a broken system that has failed and harmed our senior citizens for decades. At the same time, the pandemic is shining the spotlight on low-paid front-line workers whose truly heroic efforts are preventing the system’s complete collapse.

As a leader of a union representing workers at long-term care facilities in the Windsor region and other Ontario communities, I have been saddened to witness the human toll inflicted on residents and their families during this pandemic.

I have been angered by the unnecessary risks and challenges faced by workers who somehow are persevering and doing everything they can to care for the vulnerable residents who need them more than ever.

These awe-inspiring workers include members of my union, the United Steelworkers, employed at Country Village Homes in Woodslee, the hardest-hit long-term care facility in Essex County. In this 104-bed home, the majority of residents – 70 to date – have tested positive for the virus, as have 28 staff members, for a total of 98 cases. Tragically, 18 residents of the home have died.

The local management of Country Village, like the rest of the home’s staff, are giving their best efforts to protect the residents. Like workers throughout much of the system, they inexcusably have been left to cope in a chronically under-funded and under-staffed system, where profit motives of private operators are a driving force and government and health authorities were ill-prepared to respond to the pandemic.

As in many other homes, the source of the outbreak at Country Village is suspected to be an infected employee who worked at multiple facilities. The profit-driven business model in long-term care, sanctioned by the Ontario government, has normalized precarious work and forced care workers to hold down two or three low-paying, part-time jobs at different facilities in order to make a living. Previously, this was a personal burden on workers and their families. Now it is a critical defect of our broken system.

In fact, the Ontario government acknowledged as much, admitting this practice caused COVID-19 to spread in long-term care homes. It temporarily banned long-term care workers from working in multiple homes (without compensation), but only well after outbreaks began.

Well into the pandemic, testing was not available to workers, including members of our union, who exhibited COVID-19 symptoms and wanted to be tested. Some workers with symptoms felt compelled to stay on the job because they did not want to exacerbate the burden on colleagues already stretched to the limit. In some cases, workers who tested positive were told to return to work, even though they had no access to the safest protective equipment, such as the N95 masks.

Meanwhile, care facilities were pleading for weeks with health authorities for more testing of residents. It wasn’t until mid-April that all residents at Country Village were finally tested, while tests came even later at other homes.

As one worker stated, “From the beginning, we knew we were at risk. We knew an outbreak was coming, it was just a matter of time.”

At Country Village, the workers’ union responded to its members’ concerns by securing supplies to help protect staff and residents. The union found – and paid for – protective equipment, including N95 masks, some of which was manufactured by fellow Steelworkers at production facilities in Ontario.

For some workers, the relentless stress of this crisis has been exacerbated by the province’s ban on funeral home staff from entering long-term care homes to remove residents who have died. It now falls on caregivers, who often sit with residents and comfort them in their final moments, to place deceased residents into body bags and remove them from the building.

“We used to stand in an honour guard to pay our respects when they came and took away one of our residents,” one emotional staff member told me. “We don’t do that now. Instead, at the end of your shift, you hear a colleague say, ‘I had to bag three bodies today.’ It’s heartbreaking. There will be PTSD when this is over, I have no doubt.”

COVID-19 has exposed a corporate-driven, government-sanctioned long-term care crisis that has been building in Ontario for decades. The system is a cruel travesty of sub-standard levels of funding and care that rob our seniors of dignity and respect on a daily basis, that imposes impossible working conditions on low-paid caregivers who must cope with undue stress and despair on every shift.

These front-line heroes and the vulnerable people in their care deserve more than short-term recognition during a pandemic. They need genuine government action, namely legislating meaningful regulations, investments and improved levels of care that are overdue in this chronically broken system.

Marty Warren
Ontario Director
United Steelworkers

View Marty Warren’s column in the Windsor Star

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