CUPE worried as home care contracts expire

Media tour is launched across Ontario to focus on care industry

CUPE Ontario and the Ontario Health Coalition have launched a province-wide media tour aimed at improving the homecare industry in Ontario. A centerpiece of the campaign is improving working conditions for homecare providers through a ban on competitive bidding.

In January 2008, the province’s Liberal government asked Community Care Access Centres (CCACs) — the agencies that manage homecare contracts — to halt bidding pending a review of the procurement process. The directive came after two non-profit agencies in Hamilton, the Victorian Order of Nurses and St. Joseph’s Home Care, were barred from the process.

Late last year, the province’s Liberal government announced a strategy to improve quality and transparency in the homecare sector. Among several changes, CCACs are now required to consult with a “fairness advisor” for all requests for proposals. They must also publicly disclose the rationale for their final selections. As well, contracts with preferred providers may only be renewed for a maximum of nine years at a time.

A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care says, officially, “There’s no ban to be lifted,” but the changes do allow for competitive bidding.

On March 31, the first service contracts awarded before the pause on competitive bids two years ago are set to expire. Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE), says the changes effectively open up the bidding process, and that won’t be good for workers.

“We’ve created a homecare system which is focused on price, and you have real pressure to keep labour costs low so companies can maintain their contracts,” he says.

The minimum wage for personal support workers (the category that includes homecare workers) under contract to a CCAC is $12.50 an hour. Unionized workers earn about a dollar more per hour, according to CUPE. However, Hurley says the minimum wage is still $6 per hour less than what homecare workers would earn in a hospital or long-term care facility.

He would like to see a system more like British Columbia’s, where personal support workers enjoy similar wages, pensions and benefits regardless of where they’re employed.

“So people gravitate to working in the sector that they enjoy the most. It’s not driven by cost or price,” he says.

Turnover in the industry remains high at about 57 per cent, according to Hurley, and those who stay are most likely to work part-time.

“There are few full-time workers, so it’s a sector practically without pensions or benefits,” he says.

He says the moratorium on competitive bidding two years ago has temporarily stabilized the homecare sector. But he says with few unionized workplaces, it has been difficult to make any wage or benefit gains during this time.

“If I work for you and you lose the contract, I lose my job and the recipient of care loses me. So, the moratorium has introduced a measure of stability,” he says. “But there’s still an exodus out of the workforce, as quickly as people can, driven by the compensation problems.”

Part of the CUPE-Ontario Health Coalition media tour strategy is to encourage workers to unionize, something that has been difficult to accomplish.

“This is not a very densely unionized sector, partially because all of the agencies that were unionized lost the contracts because of their higher labour costs,” he explains, “and, also because the homecare workers might meet the other people in their agency once or twice a year for training. They receive their instructions by phone and fax. They don’t meet at a central place, so they’re difficult to locate and unionize.”

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