Matthews promises to improve PSW compensation — but it will take time

There may soon be good news for the province’s personal support workers.

“When PSWs tell me they can make more at Tim Horton’s, I sit up and take notice,” Health Minister Deb Matthews was reported to have said yesterday at the Empire Club of Canada.

According to the Toronto Star, Matthews promises to improve the wages of the province’s personal support workers but said it would take time to figure out the best way to do it.

Throughout December’s SEIU PSW strike at Red Cross Care Partners we pointed out that the minimum wage for PSWs has not been increased since 2006, frozen at $12.50 per hour. That’s below the poverty level for workers the province is counting on to make its health transformation work.

That minimum wage is far less than what former Health Minister Elinor Caplan had recommended in her 2005 review of competitive bidding in home care. Caplan recognized that there would be no continuity of care when PSWs were turning over due to poor wages and working conditions. The Star reports today that this turnover rate is 60 per cent annually – clearly the government should have listened. It’s not too late to listen now.

Caplan had specifically recommended that the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres and the health care providers establish an “industry standard” that would include including dental, drug plans, pension and mileage.

It would also make sense to involve PSW representation on any such standards review.

If the response is to include an increase in the PSW minimum wage – hopefully to at least $16 an hour – the government should also accept the principle it just adopted with the general minimum wage: indexation. Otherwise seven years later we could be in the same state of labour unrest.

During the same speech Matthews also announced plans for a “patient advocate’s office” to deal consistently with complaints from across the continuum of care. The devil will be in the details, but it leaves us wondering why in this new era of accountability that the Ombudsman’s office is consistently shut out from investigations into provincially funded health care providers, including hospitals?

It also raises questions how a patient advocate’s office will work in long-term care where about 2,000 complaints are already annually inspected through the Ministry. Last summer the Health Minister promised 100 new long-term care inspectors to be able to conduct “Resident Quality Inspections” (RQI) annually at Ontario’s more than 600 nursing homes. Some of Ontario’s long term care homes had not had a comprehensive inspection since 2009.

The promise of a long overdue adjustment to the compensation of PSWs is welcome. It will also differentiate the Wynne government and the New Democrats from the Tory opposition. The Hudak PCs are still holding on to the idea of a further two-year wage freeze in the public sector — no exceptions. With an estimated 80,000 PSWs in the province, they may want to think about that before heading to the polls in next month’s by-election or an expected spring general election. During the PSW December rally at Queen’s Park it was NDP critic France Gelinas who came out to support the workers.

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