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Nurse left homeless by COVID-19 anxiety now working the front lines of the pandemic,Catherine Cullen,on May 28, 2020 at 8:00 am
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Nurse left homeless by COVID-19 anxiety now working the front lines of the pandemic,Catherine Cullen,on May 28, 2020 at 8:00 am

Seven weeks ago, Kathrine Slinski was kicked out of the room she was renting because the landlord feared the 48-year-old nurse might bring the pandemic home with her.

Now, Slinski has taken a drastic step to both find a place to live and stabilize her finances. She took a break from her job as a community care nurse in Ottawa and moved nearly 400 kilometres away to work at a long-term care facility fighting a COVID-19 outbreak.

“At the time I still hadn’t found myself a permanent home. So I thought this would be something I could do to help and also … give me a little bit of relief financially,” she said.

As a community care nurse, Slinski’s take-home pay was modest and she wasn’t getting full-time hours. Canadians are starting to come to terms with the fact that the people doing “essential” work — the kind that saves lives and keeps vital services running — are often paid little to do it.

“We deserve to have employment that’s secure,” Slinski said. “The biggest challenge for us as workers is that it’s virtually impossible to find a permanent, full-time position that pays us a living wage.”

‘Everything is part-time’

Slinski said registered practical nurses in hospitals can make eight to 10 dollars more an hour than she did as a community care nurse. Many health care workers take on multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“Everything is part-time and everything is about finding more than one job to survive,” said Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.

Slinski’s temporary move to Sutton, ON, about four hours west of Ottawa, promises the financial relief she’s sought. It also promises to be dangerous.

Working in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak offers her full-time hours at one facility — something she said is virtually unheard of for a private sector registered practical nurse like herself. She’s also being put up in a hotel and is getting a meal allowance, she said.

But the work is extremely tough. Roughly half of the 119 residents of River Glen Haven have been infected. So have 30 staff members. Twenty-three people have died at the facility since the start of the outbreak.

In her first two weeks on the job, she said, six residents died on her ward, although she’s not sure if all of them had COVID-19.

No time to mourn

Slinksi describes working 12-hour shifts, often drenched in sweat because the plastic gowns staff are given don’t breathe. She said staff members are regularly cleaning and changing personal protective equipment while dealing with patients whose conditions sometimes decline rapidly.

“The staffing is very skeletal right now so there really isn’t that much time to mourn,” she said. “We kind of deal with what needs to be done and we move on. I think the time for mourning is going to come after.”‘

The problems at the River Glen Haven facility are proving to be particularly difficult to manage. After Slinski spoke to CBC News, Ontario’s Ministry of Long-Term Care announced it was one of two facilities that would be operated by a local hospital for at least the next 90 days.

The ministry said in a statement that, despite the hospital support, River Glen Haven has been unable to contain the spread of COVID-19.

A front line worker adjusts her PPE as she walks past another worker unloading air filters and cleaning equipment outside a long-term care home in Pickering, Ont., April 27, 2020. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Slinski said she’s hoping at least one good thing comes out of this catastrophe: a societal reckoning over the value Canada places on the work of private sector nurses and personal support workers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took up the issue on May 7 when he announced a $4 billion deal with the provinces and territories to top up the pay of some low-wage essential workers.

That pay bump is only intended to last for a few months. Trudeau suggested a deeper change is needed.

“I think one of the things that we’re seeing through this pandemic is that there are people who are tremendously economically vulnerable, and vulnerable in other ways … who are extremely important to the functioning of our society,” he said.

“In months and years to come, we’re also going to have reflections about how we manage and how we maintain our long-term care facilities, how we support essential workers who are very low paid, how we move forward as a society to make sure that our vulnerable are properly taken care of and properly rewarded for the important work they do.”

Hope and doubt

So when this crisis finally ends, will politicians and taxpayers remember the risks essential workers took to keep the wheels turning through the pandemic? One economist says he’s hopeful — and skeptical.

“This reminds me a lot of gun control debates in the United States” in the wake of a mass shooting, said Mike Moffatt, an assistant professor at Western University’s Ivey Business School.

“There’s a discussion about, ‘OK, we need to reform the system. This can’t go on.’ And then 48 hours later it’s completely forgotten about.”

Moffat, who has advised the government on economic matters in the past, said he doesn’t doubt the sincerity of politicians like Trudeau when they call for change, because the current crisis has made it impossible to ignore the inequities in Canadian society. But they have to follow through with “tangible policy,” he said.

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“Like in the gun control debate, thoughts and prayers only get you so far.”

Much of that work may fall to the provinces, he said, because many workers now deemed “essential”, such as grocery store employees, aren’t employed by federally-regulated workplaces. As for health care facilities, he said, he’d like to see governments start to think seriously about which jobs shouldn’t be outsourced to the private sector.

Silas said she’ll believe Trudeau’s words about lifting up the “economically vulnerable” if and when they’re translated into action.

“That’s your typical politician response,” she said. “How many reports have been written about health care? How many reports have been written about long-term care, about the health care workforce?”

Taking the profit out of long-term care

The best way to ensure that health care workers earn better wages and receive benefits, she said, is to purge for-profit operations from areas such as home care and long-term care.

“We’ve been asking for deleting the for-profit in health care for as long as I’ve been a nurse, and that’s many moons ago,” she said.

She points to a recent report by the Canadian Labour Congress that calls on Ottawa and the provinces to bring the long-term care system fully into the public system under the Canada Health Act.

Slinksi has less than two weeks left at her current posting. Her boss in Ottawa wants her back, she said, but she’d like to see if her help is needed elsewhere on the front lines of the outbreak.

Despite the stress, the danger and the long days that leave her exhausted, she said she’s feeling a bit more optimistic about her future these days.

“This position here is going to give me a good financial boost … maybe I’ll be able to finally settle myself somewhere.”

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