PSW’s earnings sickening

Posted on in Debates – Opinion/Column
January 17, 2014.   By Tom Mills, Sault Star

The new contract “awarded” 4,500 Ontario personal support workers employed by Red Cross Care Partners is both disgraceful and insulting.

You might have seen striking PSWs, mainly women, picketing on Sault Ste. Marie sidewalks this December. They had just rejected a Nov. 23 offer of an 11-cent-per-hour raise.

Last week an arbitrator set a new and binding contract that raises PSW pay by 1.4 per cent retroactively to last April and by the same percentage for the next two years.

Travel allowances rise by two cents now and a cent next year.

Those increases and percentages sound decent, until we consider the starting point.

PSWs were making between $12.50 and $15.02 an hour, most of them reportedly the bottom figure. That minimum wage was set nearly seven years ago.

And they were paid 34 cents per kilometre to drive themselves to the clients they serve.

If you’re paid mileage in your workplace, you might remember getting 34 cents a kilometre sometime in the early 1990s.

The Ontario government pays its employees 55 cents per kilometre. Even stingy old Revenue Canada allows 55 cents/km as the mileage rate in calculating some deductions.

As for the wage hike, 1.4 per cent won’t buy even a small cup of coffee. In fact, it leaves PSWs in the position where they might be better off manning a drive-through window.

“Work at Tim Horton’s at $12.75 an hour or 12 dollars an hour and the take-home pay would be equivalent to what I’m taking now,” Sudbury union representative Louse Leeworthy told CBC radio Monday.

Hours for PSWs can be irregular and inconsistent. At some agencies, 21 hours a week is considered full-time employment. Not all agencies provide benefits.

That $12.50 might be an appropriate wage if PSWs were just doing housework when dispatched to people’s homes by Red Cross Care Partners.

But they do much more, as one of them, Charmaine Kelegan, described in a Toronto Star opinion piece Jan. 4.

“When I’m with a client . . . I’ll help her bathe, check that she is taking her medication, perhaps change a dressing or catheter, and sometimes do some meal preparation and a little bit of housekeeping.”

Clients might have dementia or heart problems, be recovering from strokes or just unable to take care of themselves as they used to.

PSWs, some of whom have medical training, might recognize when a client needs more medical care than can be provided at home.

“They are sick and frail, but with our care they can stay out of hospital,” wrote Kelegan. “Their world gets smaller and smaller until often it’s just their room and us.”

Indeed, as well as being many clients’ lifeline, PSWs are the grunts in the medical system’s battle to reduce costs by caring for people in their own homes. Along with home nursing services, they keep a lot of seniors out of hospitals and old age homes.

That’s valuable work, even if measured only in financial terms.

One newspaper report pegged the cost of a day’s hospital care at up to nine times the cost of a day’s home care.

A couple of years ago, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews’s office said a hospital stay can cost $1,000 per patient per day.

And one of the big problems facing Ontario hospitals is that too many hospital beds are occupied by people who don’t need to be there, alternative level of care patients, mostly seniors.

In 2010 the auditor general reported that half of ALC patients who could have been discharged if home care was available waited in hospital for an average of six days.

Even an emergency room visit costs about $150 on average in Ontario.

Compare those costs to the taxpayer with $12.50 an hour.

Or $18,423 a year, just below the poverty line for a single adult in Ontario, which Kelegan claims is the average yearly income of PSWs at her agency.

MEANWHILE, at Sault Area Hospital, administrators seem to be treating a budget surplus as if it were a Lotto 6/49 jackpot.

The hospital should be justifiably happy that it posted a $2.9-million surplus last year.

It has earmarked $1.5 million of that for debt repayment.

But it plans to set up an “innovation fund” with another $1.3 million, looking for proposals from hospital staff and the outside community on how to spend the money to “improve the quality of care and patient experience.”

That $1.3 million isn’t a windfall. It’s a surplus that SAH created by cutting costs and increasing revenues.

Since SAH probably got that money by paring staffing levels and imposing fees such as the hated $5 parking charge, it could improve the patient experience by reducing parking fees and/or hiring some nurses or cleaners.

Or it might make even more sense to pay down a bigger share of the hospital’s debt.

According to the most recent reports I can find, SAH is carrying about $60 million in long-term debt, without factoring in new hospital costs. That includes more than a million dollars in short-term loans.

In the year ending March 31, 2012, SAH paid almost $20 million to service its long-term debt.

Simple math is all the innovation SAH needs.

No need to tax the community’s collective imagination.

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