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Unions say better working conditions needed for Nova Scotia's home care sector

CUPE Nova Scotia President Nan McFadgen, right, speaks to the standing committee on health in Halifax on Feb. 14, 2023. (Heidi Petracek/CTV) CUPE Nova Scotia President Nan McFadgen, right, speaks to the standing committee on health in Halifax on Feb. 14, 2023. (Heidi Petracek/CTV)
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HALIFAX -

Better working conditions and more safety considerations are needed to ensure Nova Scotia can recruit and keep workers in its overstressed home-care sector, a pair of union leaders told a legislature committee Tuesday.

Nan McFadgen, provincial president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, told the health committee that the home-care system, which contracts work to 18 separate providers, needs to guarantee hours for workers.

"Recruitment to the sector gets harder when the worker is told they cannot have a regular schedule or even know that they will receive guaranteed full-time or part-time hours," McFadgen said. "I ask each of you at this table, would you sign up for that deal?"

She said that as things stand, the provincial government only funds agencies for the time workers spend in contact with clients.

"Why do we do it this way? Well, the government saves money by not paying home-support workers if there is any down time in the schedule where a client is not being visited."

McFadgen added that too many workers leave because they aren't getting sufficient hours, adding that her union has seen a 10-per-cent reduction over the past year in the number of people it represents.

Implementing guaranteed work hours instead of offering anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week is essential to help with recruitment and retention in the profession, she said.

"I ask you, does your paycheque vary from week to week? What stress would that cause in your life?" McFadgen asked the committee. "The funding formula must change. We know that good pay and benefits attract workers."

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, said the safety of home-care nurses is a concern because the majority work on their own and often have no idea what kind of situations they are about to walk into when they enter a home -- particularly during evening and night shifts.

"The home environment is often unpredictable and nurses have very little control over enforcing rules around hazards like smoking, pets, firearms," Hazelton said.

She said there should be two people per house call to help ensure worker safety -- at the very least during the initial assessment visit. The second person, she added, wouldn't necessarily need to be a nurse.

"It could be a care aid or a personal care worker, or someone else with them because going into someone's house by yourself without knowing what's on the other side of that door is intimidating," she told reporters following the hearing.

But Tracey Barbrick, deputy minister for the Department of Seniors and Long-Term care, said Hazelton's suggestion would be a challenge to implement given staffing shortages of around 10 per cent across the home- and long-term care system.

"I don't think it would ever make sense for that to be a blanket condition," Barbrick said, adding that a risk assessment is already conducted before any home care is provided.

As for steady work, the deputy minister said there are two pilot trials, involving guaranteed working hours, that are being run by the Victorian Order of Nurses and Halifax-based long-term care facility Northwood. The province, she added, is not closed to the idea.

"We are in a position where many of our home-support contracts are either expired or soon to be expired, so these (guaranteed hours) are things that we can talk about at the bargaining table," she said.

The committee was also told Tuesday that there are currently 900 people across the province on the wait list to receive full home-support care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2023.

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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