A severe, provincewide staffing shortage will prevent many of the Ford government’s promised new long-term care beds, including those announced today in Vaughan, from opening, according to CUPE, the province’s largest health care union.

“Minister Calandra can make all the announcements he wants, but if there’s no long-term plan to attract and retain staff, these beds may as well be in a fantasy novel,” said Debra Maxfield, chair of CUPE’s Health Care Workers Coordinating Committee. “In long-term care, we’ve worked like heroes throughout the pandemic and were rewarded with three years of wage restraint. People are leaving the sector in droves.”

The job vacancy rate in nursing and residential care facilities has gone up by 457% since 2015. It’s a trend that is certain to worsen as the province continues to focus on subsidizing private long-term care facilities that have chronically poor wages and working conditions and, as the pandemic exposed, fatally poor care standards.

Across the province, the long-term care sector alone needs to attract 59,000 nurses and PSWs in the next few years.

That will be difficult given the current trend in the sector and the recent history of wage restraint with Bill 124. It will be particularly challenging in York Region, where the almost nine-month wait time for a long-term care bed is already 40% above the provincial average.

“The Premier calls healthcare workers ‘heroes’, but in this almost entirely female sector he has forced wage restraint that left long-term care workers about six percent behind inflation. It’s disrespectful and hypocritical,” said Maxfield. “In long-term care homes, we work as a team and it takes everyone – nurses, PSWs, dietary, housekeeping, activation and many others. Too often these days, people are now making more money at their second job at a grocery store or fast-food chain. That’s an embarrassment.”

Temporary or one-time increases for one or two job classifications, such as the government has proposed for PSWs, will not create a long-term solution for the sector. Even the government’s much-lauded bill to increase bedside care hours by 2025 will fail without a comprehensive plan to increase wages and improve working conditions.

One important step is to prioritize building public and non-profit long-term care so that public funds are not siphoned away from staff and care in order to create dividends for wealthy shareholders. The pandemic highlighted the poor conditions at for-profit long-term care homes, which saw much higher average deaths than did public or not-for-profit facilities. Another is to raise wages and working conditions to make the sector attractive to the tens of thousands of workers the province needs to recruit.

CUPE represents more than 90,000 heath care workers in Ontario, including those in more than 240 retirement and long-term care facilities across the province.