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Judy Haiven: Why healthcare workers deserve a raise

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – On one side of the heroes’ ledger are doctors, nurses and other professionalized health care workers like technologists and therapists. They are on the front lines at the hospitals and clinics attending to patients and fighting  the Covid-19 virus. Somehow they must also keep their own spirits up before the onslaught of potentially thousands of patients coming through the doors with high fevers, coughing and difficulty breathing.

Doctors are well paid. These nurses and other professionals – thanks to decades of  unionization — are decently paid. They can afford to live on what they earn.

On the other side of the ledger are the other unionized health care workers:  the continuing care assistants, the orderlies, the porters, the ward clerks, the cleaners and the food service staff. They too have to be at their jobs, often around the clock.

However, in these times of crisis and uncertainty and fear, do the wages of any of the heroes make up for the dangers they face?

One could argue that doctors and nurses have a higher calling. They are part of professions which for centuries have placed others’ lives before their own – on battlefields, in war zones, in earthquakes, in hurricanes, and in parts of the world where there was little hope. Today doctors and nurses have died in China and in Italy while treating patients with the Coronavirus. Yes, money means something to doctors and nurses–  but it does not mean everything.

But money means an awful lot to many hospital heroes who are earning a handful of  dollars more than minimum wage. Today, Nova Scotia’s minimum wage is $11.55. On April 1, minimum wage will rise to a measly $12.55 an hour. Our hospital heroes are pressed by the need to work more hours, or overtime, to earn enough money to live. I know one clinic receptionist who works two jobs – she’s not the exception.

We know about minimum wage, but what about the Living Wage? The Living Wage is what a worker should be paid so that their household can meet basic needs. It is meant to prevent severe financial stress by lifting families out of poverty and providing a basic level of economic security.

In Halifax it stands at $19.17 an hour, and that was a couple of years ago. A warning about the Living Wage: it does not take into account the need for savings, putting money aside for children’s higher education or adding to pensions.

See also; A living wage for Halifax and Antigonish

Because most of our hospital heroes are unionized, they earn around $19.00 an hour. But other healthcare workers, such as non-unionized homecare workers, earn far less. Is it fair to ask them to gamble their own health and that of their families in this time of crisis?  

We know the reason Premier McNeil’s comments are turgid and sound frightening. Our health care system would break down if thousands needed hospitalization, needed ventilators, or immediate treatment for Covid-19. Funding to the system has been shorted for years. Corners have been cut. GPs are in short supply and high demand.  

Everyone has now seen the wonderful chart about “flattening the curve.” The key point is to slow and reduce the increase in cases of Covid-19 so that the influx of patients does not overwhelm the capacity of the hospitals. But one of the elephants in the room is that line representing capacity. Because of all the austerity cuts in recent years, that line is much lower than it should be and much easier to overwhelm. Health care systems need excess capacity precisely in order to deal with emergencies like pandemics. We need more health care workers, intensive care beds, ventilators, not fewer.

While health care in acute settings is good – what about caring for an ageing and increasingly disabled population? What about quality care in long-term care facilities? Reports reveal most nursing homes are operating at minimal staffing levels. We need all the heroes of health care on duty – but with this Covid-19 crisis many will get sick, or book off because someone is sick in their families.  Who will replace people who deliver food trays to patients, who clean, who bathe and cope with patients and their families?  

At the least these health care heroes need higher pay – that’s some assurance of their value to the broader community. 

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, a Halifax-based organization which fights bullying, racism and discrimination in the workplace. You can reach her at equitywatchns@gmail.com

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