In the wake of the Red Cross Care Partners strike last December, it was clear the province needed to quickly improve the working lives of its personal support workers. Home and community care agencies were losing significant numbers of staff due to poor compensation prevalent in the sector. The government’s austerity agenda was only making the situation worse.
The result was the Ministry’s Personal Support Worker Workforce Stabilization Strategy which includes the much talked about $1.50 an hour wage increase retroactive to April 1, 2014.
Now some employers are actually balking at the funding the government is flowing to them for the purposes of improving PSW wages, including the March of Dimes which already bruised its public image after locking out 30 Oakville workers last fall.
The reason has to do with employer payroll costs and a flattening of wage structures.
The Ontario Community Support Association says the 16 per cent the government has allocated for related costs is not enough. A wage increase would also impact employer contributions to such payroll expenses as the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance and the Employer Health Tax.
Employers in this position are being advised in some quarters to contact their Local Health Integration Network given non-compliance could also invalidate their accountability agreements. Officially the government has said they will not make up the difference in statutory payroll costs beyond the 16 per cent. Given a choice between balanced budgets and compliance with the stabilization directive, the LHINs might play a role in ensuring the situation is not an either/or scenario either by making up the difference or working with the provider to find further efficiencies.
The employers also say the wage adjustment may push the hourly wage for PSWs past those of Registered Practical Nurses. There is little question that wages for other home care professionals also lag behind their counterparts in hospitals and long-term care. It may have made more sense to address wage inequities by sector rather than by a single profession.
Implementation of the retroactive increase is due to take place this month. Employers are required to submit a certificate of compliance with the wage directive by October 15, 2014. That’s not much time.
It’s clear the implementation of the strategy has been a little ragged – some employers still appear confused by the initiative — but kudos to the government for doing all it can to carry out the wage increase quickly. For struggling front line personal support workers, this cannot come soon enough.
No doubt some employers will be looking for loopholes. The strategy specifically targets publicly funded work through the CCAC and the LHINs, but the agencies often engage in privately paid care. That could awkwardly place agency workers in a position of receiving different wages depending on who is paying for the visit.
Dr. Eric Hoskins, Ontario’s new Health Minister, has said that an expert panel is being struck to smooth out the transition process for years two and three of the strategy. The government has previously committed another $1.50 increase as of April 1, 2015 and a final $1.00 increase for April 1, 2016.
What does this mean for individual workers?
Employers were required to provide written notice to those eligible to receive the increase by September 1, 2014. In other words, most PSWs should know by now if they are included.
It is possible that some may receive more than $1.50 per hour if the new funding does not raise their wage above $14 an hour, the new minimum wage for personal support workers.
The Ministry has made it clear that the $1.50 increase is over and beyond any other wage compensation that has already been agreed to, such as pay equity adjustments, negotiated collective agreements or increases related to the pay grid. The funding for the wage increase cannot be reallocated for such purposes.
The strategy does not make any requirements that the PSW be entered into the PSW Registry, nor does it require any formal education to qualify, such as a PSW certificate.
Clearly there is much work yet, and it’s a safe bet that the government is not looking to pick a fight with employers.
Let’s not forget that the employer groups themselves had been advocating for the increase to solve their recruitment and retention issues.
The health minister would do well to make sure that labour is represented on the expert panel looking at further implementation.
Hoskins should also revisit the idea of dividing PSWs by qualifying those who provide home support and seek to close down loopholes that would exempt employers from participating in the strategy.
Ultimately this whole process would have been much simpler had the government sought to bring more of the home and community care sectors under direct public delivery. That’s now water under the bridge but a reminder that Mike Harris’ privatization legacy is still with us.