Insights September 2014

Strike pits corporate behemoth against $12.88 an hour home support workers

Rick Janson

Renfrew County doesn’t usually generate a lot of headlines.

In a very conservative part of the province the plight of a 140 striking home care workers is generating some sympathy as they take on a corporate behemoth. It’s a David versus Goliath story that pits the millionaire Extendicare CEO against the $12.88 an hour home support worker.

The striking front line staff at ParaMed Home Health Care’s Renfrew County operations are a mere drop in the bucket in Extendicare’s universe. Extendicare, which owns ParaMed, employs about 35,000 workers in Canada and the U.S. Its international headquarters are in Markham, Ontario.

The power a company that size is being used to grind down the small Renfrew group. It’s been 21 months since their collective agreement expired and ParaMed has shown little interest in coming to the bargaining table or shifting from its hard-line position.

Of course, for Extendicare, there is little at stake beyond the profits generated from this small corner of the province and some public relations value. This is hardly showing Extendicare in a good light, but it may be the least of their concerns. Extendicare recently announced a $42.2 million legal settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after a 2010 investigation regarding undisclosed claims in alleged violation of the U.S. Social Security Act. The company also has to undergo a five-year corporate integrity agreement, not that Extendicare admits to having done anything wrong.

Back on the streets of Renfrew County the concerns are very different.

For the Community Care Access Centre, there is a scramble to find alternative care for about 1200 frail and elderly patients per day. For the patients, it means getting used to a new provider who may be more than a little harried with the extra work.

Correctly the CCAC is triaging patients based on their level of acuity. In the short-term the CCAC may find enough capacity to cover for the striking workers, but it will come at the expense of other patients within the County and possibly within the greater Champlain region. That includes those presently in hospital looking for a commitment of home support in order to be effectively discharged.

When wages start as low as $12.88 per hour, it is no surprise the front line workers are balking at an employer which refuses to budge not only from a five-year wage freeze, but is looking at other take-aways from workers who can least afford it. CEO Timothy Lukenda may be able to live with his reduced compensation of $827,000 for 2013 (down from $1.1 million in 2012), but that may not be the case for front line workers who’s wages fail to take them out of poverty.

Home health care is an important part of Extendicare’s business. The private for-profit corporate giant has contracts that represent about 15 per cent of Ontario’s home care visits. It is the largest such provider of home care in the province.

With the company having posted a net loss for its American operations in 2013, the Canadian operations kept Extendicare in the black. After taxes, Extendicare’s Canadian operations generated a net profit of $16.4 million. It’s American operation lost $11.1 million.

For the Renfrew County ParaMed staff, the expense of simply doing their job is being increasingly borne by the worker, not ParaMed or the Province.

Back in 2010 when ParaMed’s local nursing staff in Renfrew County were last given an increase in their mileage rate regular gas sold on average for $1.01 per litre in the Ottawa area (July 2010). This July it sold for $1.34/litre (Stats Can).

The website Travel Smart estimates the average cost of owning a vehicle in Canada to be $10,456 per year. Based on 18,000 kilometers per year, that works out to be about 61 cents per kilometer. ( )

The Canada Revenue Agency calculates 54 cents per kilometer as the appropriate rate for compensation – at least for the first 5,000 kilometers.

If you are a nurse at ParaMed, the current rate of compensation for work-related travel is 26 cents per kilometer. That means you are subsidizing your trips between clients by 35 cents per kilometer (Travel Smart) or 28 cents (CRA).

If you are a personal support worker the mileage rate may initially appear better. PSWs are paid 43 cents per kilometer, but that rate is also expected to compensate for their driving time between visits. If it takes a personal support worker 30 minutes to travel 20 kilometers – not unrealistic including traffic, stop lights, parking and other impediments – ParaMed has calculated that your travel time between visits is worth about $6.80 per hour (43 cents – 26 cents (nursing rate) = 17 cents/kilometer for travel time). That’s well below the minimum wage.

In fact, to earn the minimum wage of $11/hour, it means the worker would have to travel an average of 64 kilometers an hour without any stops between appointments. In towns like Pembroke or Renfrew, that could be a challenge and potentially raise the eyebrows of law enforcement.

The reality is nobody is going to drive that recklessly between appointments. Instead ParaMed has found a way to pay less than the general minimum wage to personal support workers the government is coincidentally trying to retain through a blanket 3-year $4/hour increase to their wages.

When workers picketed in front of ParaMed’s Ottawa offices last week, management insisted that there were two sides to this story.

We agree. There is the side of those who do the difficult front line work and who are heartbroken at having to leave their patients for the duration of the strike. Then there is the company CEO. Definitely among Canada’s one per cent elite, he has likely never met any of these patients. There are likely much bigger corporate machinations at play that makes this just one more minor nuisance.

Who would you trust with 15 per cent of Ontario’s public home care? 

About the Author(s)

Rick Janson writes DiaBlogue, a project of the OPSEU Health Care Divisional Council. The Council represents more than 45,000 professional and support staff in Ontario’s Health Care System.


Reprinted with permission from DiaBlogue 


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