Toronto – May 11, 2020 – Many in the media and elsewhere have been praising Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford has certainly outshone most other conservative premiers in Canada, mainly by not being the belligerent bully he was during his first eighteen month as premier. But we can’t forget his government’s reckless actions in the lead up to this pandemic.
Ever since Ford got elected in June 2018, he has acted like a playground bully whenever he has been questioned about his actions. And many of the people he now praises as being on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19 have been negatively affected by legislation that his government has implemented.
One of the first bills passed by the Ford government was Bill 47, which undid changes to workplace rights that had been introduced by the previous Liberal government. Bill 47 froze the minimum wage at $14 dollars an hour and cancelled the scheduled increase to $15 dollars. Many of the workers the government rightly calls heroes would have benefited from the increase. The legislation also stripped away the meagre two paid sick days brought in by the previous government and the eight unpaid emergency leave days that were also introduced. Under Bill 47, temporary, casual and part-time workers are no longer entitled to the same wage for doing the same job as permanent or directly hired colleagues, which hurts workers in the long-term care sector, where part-time and casual work are common.
Bill 47 also cancelled the requirement that workers receive a minimum of 3 hours pay if they are on call but don’t get a shift, or if their shift is cancelled within 48 hours of starting, and workers can no longer refuse last minute requests to work an unscheduled shift. Fines for violating the Labour Relations Act have been drastically reduced, and workers on strike or locked out by their employer for more than 6 months no longer have the right to get their job back when the dispute is over. These are just some of Ford’s attacks on workers via Bill 47.
Ford also introduced Bill 124 limiting wage increases for public sector workers to 1 percent – an amount that is lower than inflation, and due to increases in the cost of living, results in a pay cut. Bill 124 is an obvious violation of the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining granted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is another example of legislation that hurts the very workers the Ford government is now hailing as heroes.
But it is the neglect of problems in our long-term care (LTC) sector that is now revealing where the Ford government has failed Ontarians the most. Under Conservative Premier Mike Harris, the move to a more privatized LTC system was set in motion and continued under Liberal governments that followed. The COVID-19 pandemic has lifted the veil off the problems in LTC that activists and unions have been raising for many years now. Almost half of the COVID-19 related deaths in Ontario have been linked to LTC facilities. For-profit delivery and provincial underfunding are a toxic mix that have led to cost-cutting on the front lines. The government says that care homes are to receive a yearly inspection known as a Resident Quality Inspection (RQI). These inspections are unannounced so that inspectors get a real idea of the conditions in the home. From 2015 to 2017, almost all homes were inspected, but in 2018 – the year the Ford government got elected – that number dropped to just over half of all homes. And in 2019, only 9 out of 626 homes in the province were inspected. The province claims that over 2,300 inspections were completed, but these inspections were initiated by complaints and homes were notified and had time to prepare for them.
Front-line workers in LTC have long struggled with low wages and part-time and casual work. Homes only provided part-time hours to avoid paying benefits and forced many staff to work in numerous homes just to make full-time equivalent wages, but still without benefits.
The government’s refusal to properly fix long term care prior to the COVID-19 pandemic likely has to do with who they listen to on the issues facing the sector. Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris is the Chairman of the Board of one of the largest for-profit nursing home chains in the province. The staffing advisory group for LTC, established by the government, includes James Schlegal, CEO of Schlegal Villages, another chain of for-profit homes. Since 2007, Schlegal made over $72,000 dollars in donations to the Conservatives. This includes over $27,000 to current Health Minister Christine Elliott. Meanwhile, there are no representatives on the advisory group from the unions that represent workers in this sector.
So before we praise Doug Ford for doing a great job of handling the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s remember the havoc that his government wreaked on Ontario prior to this health crisis, and acknowledge that many of the LTC issues we are now grappling with are a direct result of the Ford government’s reckless actions.