Toronto’s prestigious University Health Network (UHN) is exploiting personal support workers (PSWs), nurses and other health staff at their satellite hospital the Hillcrest Reactivation Centre, charged several PSWs who spoke publicly for the first time about their dismal pay and back-breaking working conditions.

The three PSWs described their gruelling workloads, constant understaffing, and insufficient patient care at the Hillcrest rehabilitation centre where UHN contracts-out patient care and staffing to SE Health – a home care agency. Hillcrest has operated as a 75-bed convalescent, rehabilitation hospital for the University Health Network for the last three years. In the beginning average length of stay at Hillcrest was intended to be 60 days. But for the last year patients are admitted to Hillcrest for long periods – some up to a year – they await transfer to other hospitals, their homes, or more often to nursing homes and long-term care.

“These patients have many complex care needs. We are not able to cope with the care they need with the number of staff we have. You are literally running from one room to another all day. We told the managers that they are burning out the staff, but no one listens,” said one of the PSWs. She added that some patients are bariatric and difficult to lift even with the Hoyer lift and two PSWs.

The PSWs are paid $16.50 - $16.88 an hour. This is much lower than PSWs in long-term care and more than $6.00 less than UHN pays PSWs at its other Toronto hospitals. Even throughout the pandemic the staff at Hillcrest get just three sick days per year, despite the fact that some of them have contracted COVID-19 from working there. One of the PSWs said although she was going through cancer treatment, she took no sick days.

“No one else doing hospital work in Toronto is earning $16.88 an hour. These women, the majority of whom are racialized do their work with love and compassion. The patients thrive under their care. UHN must end this exploitation,” said Michael Hurley the President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU-CUPE). 

Prior to COVID-19 the annual turnover rate for staff at Hillcrest was 30 per cent. Driven by the low wages paid to staff and complex care needs of patients – some of whom remain at Hillcrest for half a year to a year – the high turnover rate has a significant impact on patient care and the wellbeing and morale of workers who remain.

“There were about 120 people working at Hillcrest at the beginning, but 30-40 leave every year. Many of the staff leave for other jobs. Everybody is trying to leave.  Everybody is looking for other work,” said one of the PSWs.

In support of the PSW’s who are risking employer reprisal for speaking out, other UHN-Hillcrest front-line staff are taking part in day of action in the workplace and calling on UHN to make them UHN employees.

Ontario has the lowest hospital bed capacity in Canada or the OECD. “One way that it copes for the lack of hospital capacity is by offloading patients who are post-acute into facilities which could provide post-acute hospital care, but which are not staffed to provide that care.  Worse, with Ontario’s low level of hospital capacity, pressures build to transfer into these facilities patients who need much more care,” said Hurley.