The Ontario government recently announced additional practical training opportunities and other incentives for more personal support workers (PSWs) and nurses in the long-term care sector. While we all agree that our health care system desperately needs many more well-trained staff to help meet the enormous resource challenges, announcing these incentives for personal support workers and long-term care nurses alone, the government is amplifying the staffing problem that is eroding the home and community health care safety net.
The Ontario Community Support Association (OCSA) is a member organization representing more than 220 organizations that support more than one million Ontarians of all ages and abilities. Agencies provide services ranging from nursing, personal care and rehabilitation to adult day programs, supportive housing, meals on wheels and transportation. The sector helps vulnerable Ontarians live safely in their homes and stay in their communities longer, easing pressure on long-term care and hospitals.
According to a recent survey of OCSA members, staff vacancy rates for 2021 have almost tripled. Among the top three front-line positions — personal support workers, registered nurses (RNs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs) — for full-time and part-time jobs, 17.4% of positions are vacant . This includes 26.1% of all RN positions, an increase of 421%.
PSWs and nurses are leaving the sector in droves, many to other sectors where there are incentive opportunities to consolidate similar roles. Personal support workers in the home and community care sector have the same education but receive less compensation than personal support workers in hospitals and long-term care. Registered nurses in home and community care also earn significantly less despite having the same training – 32% less than those working in hospitals.
Ontario needs a comprehensive health human resource strategy that includes funding for home and community care as part of the overall continuum of care in our province.
We need to build capacity across all sectors so we can meet the growing demand for services that enable people to live well in their homes and communities. Achieving this will require collaboration across sectors and across government to approach the health care system as a full continuum, rather than viewing our health human resources in silos.
Together, we must go beyond closing the pay and benefit gaps between sectors and address issues such as working conditions and better models of care and see the home and community care sector as the equal partner in the well-being of our health care system that he is.
Growing staff shortages only lengthen waiting lists and, in the current trajectory, will lead to the cancellation of programs or services. This will result in increased caregiver burnout as well as additional pressure on long-term care facilities and hospitals across Ontario.
We need to look beyond training staff in one sector to solve the current health care crisis in Ontario. Unfortunately, given the current state, this approach may actually serve to exacerbate the underlying causes of staffing shortages in one area of health care and growing needs in another.