Nearly 3,000 home and community health-care workers hit the chilly picket lines across Ontario Friday as CEOs, managers and administrators stepped up to the front lines.
Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) workers voted to strike on Thursday evening after negotiations between the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) and the CCACs broke down over wages. All but one of the CCAC catchment areas with representation by ONA voted to strike.
“I’m really, really pleased with the 3,000 of them that are out there on the line today,” said ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud, who was out picketing with union members in Newmarket. “They’re resolved to ensuring that this employer steps up to the plate.”
The striking CCAC workers include registered practical nurses, rapid response registered nurses, care co-ordinators and direct care nurse practitioners. Their roles include helping patients transition from a hospital to home care, working with students to provide mental health supports, connecting patients with ongoing home care and creating support plans for recovering patients.
Haslam-Stroud describes the health care workers as the “cog in the wheel for health care.”
Haslam-Stroud said CCAC workers cared for her elderly parents for the past seven years, helping them live at home despite her mother’s severe dementia. Without them, her mother would have been forced to live in a long-term care facility, she said.
“She couldn’t toilet herself. She could not dress herself,” she said. “It was only because of these care co-ordinators (that they could live at home).”
The strike news meant hundreds of thousands of who rely on CCAC services each year woke up to uncertainty about their care.
“Today is a challenging day for the CCAC team,” OACCAC spokesperson Megan Allen-Lamb told the Toronto Star.
The impact of Friday’s strike on patient care varied across the province, she said, adding contingency plans were in the works for months.
“Are we feeling the impact of the referrals coming in and having a smaller team here to handle those referrals? Absolutely,” Allen-Lamb said, adding CCAC staff are prioritizing patients with the greatest need. “There are waits for some of our patients that otherwise would go right on service.”
Across the province, non-ONA union employees, CEOs, management and administrators moved in to fill the striking workers’ void.
“So today I spent the bulk of my time on the phone with patients and our care partners to make sure that referrals are getting processed,” said Jo-anne Marr, CEO of the Central Community Care Access Centre (CCCAC), which includes North York. “In the next day or two … I’ll be moving out to our hospital sites.”
Marr said nearly 700 CCCAC workers are currently on strike, leaving just under 200 workers — 36 of whom are regulated care professionals, such as nurses or social workers — to take over.
“Almost everyone is deployed,” she said, adding staff are working overtime voluntarily and in shifts. “As you can imagine, there’s a learning curve.”
Marr, a nurse herself, said the CCCAC receives around 500 new referrals daily — half of which come from patients being discharged from hospitals.
“Today we do have a bit of a backlog,” she said. “There’s no question that there are going to be longer waits.”
Hospitals affected by the strike in the GTA, including Rouge Valley Centenary and North York General, said they weren’t experiencing an impact on service — despite North York General seeing CCAC staffing drop from 12 care co-ordinators to two.
CCACs in the GTA affected by strikes also reported no patient complaints.
But it is early days.
“We won’t know (if there are problems) until people start complaining,” said Kingsley Kwok, chairperson of the Ontario Health Coalition’ Scarborough chapter.
Allen-Lamb said patients already receiving home care will continue to receive services through the CCAC’s contracted service provider organizations, which employ personal support workers and some nursing staff.
Programs such as care for palliative patients, mental health support in schools and rapid response nursing will be triaged, with emergency cases prioritized, said Allen-Lamb.
When the strike will end is unclear.
Allen-Lamb said the OACCAC wants to return to the bargaining table.
Haslam-Stroud said the CCACs or the government “need to make the next move.”
The strike does not affect the Champlain, Central West, Mississauga Halton and Toronto Central CCACs, where employees are not represented by the ONA. Hamilton Niagara Haldimand Brant CCAC voted in favour of the offer.
The strike comes as the Ontario government is squeezing more health care services out of hospitals and into community care services.
The ONA, which represents workers from 10 out of the province’s 14 CCACs, is asking for a 1.4 per cent salary increase each year for two years. The increase is comparable to what counterparts in hospitals, public health and long-term care facilities receive, she said.
Haslam-Stroud said CCAC workers across the province earn salaries equivalent to, or less than, their hospital counterparts.