Home support worker and patient at breakfastThe Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) is one of Peterborough’s oldest community care providers. “Unfortunately, corporate, VON Canada, who aren’t local, are also the epitome of an exploitative employer, already paying low wages and refusing to give a decent raise. These home care workers are the face of low-waged labour,” says Amanda Wells, health care coordinator with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Hundreds of ill patients and isolated seniors with chronic medical conditions receive care in their home or at one of the VON day programs from the 120 skilled and dedicated personal support workers and clerical staff represented by CUPE 4419.

These VON workers have been without a new contract since 2016. Recent bargaining with the VON team led by a negotiator from outside the community has proved challenging.

“Patients and their families rely on the supports provided by dedicated home staff to remain independent at home and for post-hospital care. The work they do touches many vulnerable people.  They should not be seen as cheap labour to be exploited at a time when the seniors’ population is growing, there is a shortage of personal support workers, and the health system is being turned on its head by the provincial government,” Wells says.

It’s projected that, between 2017-2041, Peterborough and Haliburton will see a 60% to 75% growth in the number of seniors. Many of them will need care at home to remain independent. However, fewer people are opting to train as personal support workers.

In part, to deal with a home care worker shortage, in the spring of 2014 the Ontario government provided agencies like the VON wage enhancement funding to increase home care workers’ pay by $4 an hour in order to attract and retain staff. Currently, the provincial minimum wage for personal support workers is $16.50 per hour.

Many of the VON staff are earning below what the province has set as the base rate.

“Essentially, the VON isn’t even paying some of the staff the wage the government says is the absolute minimum. In addition, what this employer is offering is a pitifully meager wage increase that is nowhere near inflation,” says Wells.

Bargaining between CUPE 4419 and the VON over several dates in May has not been “fruitful” in achieving a fair contract, despite the help of a Ministry of Labour-appointed conciliator. Negotiations broke off last week and the union filed for a ‘no board’ report with the ministry, a process that sets the clock ticking to a labour disruption.

“It’s not constructive for the employer to continue on this path when what they really need is labour stability at a time when home care delivery is in flux and the dedication of home care is needed more than ever,” says Wells.