Why is Red Cross Care Partners exploiting Personal Support Workers?

Last year, the CEO of the Red Cross Society was given a 9% increase in base salary, about $25 thousand, bringing his total wage package to just under $300,000. This occurred around the same time he was finalizing a merger between his Ontario non-profit homecare agency and the for-profit company CarePartners.

The new company, Red Cross Care Partners, seems to be adopting a corporate vision that includes not only extremely generous compensation for its executives, but also some of the worst practices of runaway greed and selfishness, as it refuses to address the longstanding issues of basic respect and fair treatment being sought by 4,500 Personal Support Workers.

These workers, known as PSW’s, are the backbone of homecare services across Ontario. They go into the homes of seniors and other clients every day, often driving long distances on their own time and paying for gas out of their own pockets, to deliver the kind of quality care that keeps their clients healthy, independent and in their own homes, where they want to be.

The average salary of a PSW is about the same as the increase given to the CEO. These workers have no pension plan and no ability to save for retirement. And they have been working under a regime of wage freezes for five years (having settled in two contracts for small, lump sum payments). In the last two years, as a result of inflation and a big jump in the price of gas, the value of their annual earnings has been reduced by 7%.

These women (more than 90% of the workforce is female) are penalized for doing the hard lifting of taking care of our aging population and the most vulnerable members of society. They provide support to their clients for the activities of daily living and bring skills and dedication that serve as a lifeline supplement to the caregiving and love of family members.

They are also increasingly identified as a key to success in building a sustainable health system. Governments everywhere are responding to the challenge of “bending the cost curve” in health spending by shifting resources from acute and hospital care to community and homecare. In Ontario, the provincial government is committed to a major multi-year increase in homecare funding.

Controlling costs is one thing. Building a vision for sustainability on the backs of front-line Personal Support Workers is quite another. Human resource planning strategies have been successfully applied to critical workforce supply, development and stabilization issues involving nurses, physicians and other professionals. It’s long past time for health system planners to address the fundamental challenges facing front-line homecare work.

There is also an underlying issue of financial accountability across the homecare sector. We estimate that in 2013, Red Cross Care Partners, the largest homecare agency in Ontario, will direct $72 million, fully half its allocation of government funding, toward administration, company profit and executive compensation. No wonder there are growing concerns about efficiency in the sector.

Ontarians have a right to know whether this is what government intends when it promises expansion of homecare – that only 50 cents of every taxpayer dollar makes it to the client, that workers are taken for granted and leave their jobs to look for better pay and benefits elsewhere, and that agency executives get to play out their fantasies of private-sector compensation regimes, with all their attendant arrogance and self-interest.

Red Cross Care Partners is offering nothing at the bargaining table - another round of zeroes. Another contract with no progress on gas mileage, driving time, pension entitlement, or benefit improvements. As a consequence, we are now less than two weeks away from a province-wide strike at this agency.

Why is this company exploiting Personal Support Workers? Because, at least in the past, they could. But not any more. This time it will be different. This time, these workers will settle for nothing less than justice for PSWs.

Sharleen Stewart

President, SEIU Healthcare

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