Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions (NBCNHU), sat down earlier this week with the NB Media Co-op to discuss the situation of nursing home workers. This story is part one of a series.
Sharon Teare entered into the long-term care setting 23 years ago “because I care, genuinely care about the seniors. We have all we have today because of all the hard work that seniors had done.”
Teare is president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions (NBCNHU), representing about 4,000 workers in the 51 nursing homes unionized by CUPE. “The 51 local presidents give me direction,” she explained. As CUPE NBCNHU president, she also sits on the CUPE New Brunswick executive.
The nursing home sector in New Brunswick has a history of strong women fighting for their rights as workers. Teare’s first experience on a picket was in 2001, before she became a union activist. The 2001 nursing home strike was settled in part because the government agreed with the workers’ demand to commission a study on the quality of care in nursing homes.
That report, released in February 2002, was prepared by the company DMR Consulting for the NB department of Family and Community Services. For their study, DMR consulted more than 250 individuals through focus groups, interviews and surveys.
The 2002 DMR report “Nursing Home Services Resident Care Needs Project,” found that home care residents had increasing dependence and acuity over the previous 10 years. Some of the findings: 80% of residents presented with cognitive impairments / dementia or psychiatric disorders requiring behaviour management approaches; incontinence management was required for 66% of the residents; 42% of residents required major or total feeding assistance; about 17% of residents had formal rehabilitation plans that were not being fully implemented, and since 1997, there had been a 48% increase in special treatments and procedures required for patients.
The report also identified the major weaknesses in the nursing home system, including: staff burnout and dissatisfaction, high absenteeism related to injury and burnout, staff challenged to meet basic care needs, a large percentage of staff not full-time, growing waiting lists, and crisis management prevailed over best practices.
The DMR consultants described “the stressed state of the service providers.” Their report states: “Nursing home service providers are beyond accepting cosmetic changes or ‘window dressing’ initiatives and are at record low levels of patience and tolerance.” Workers are “just trying to keep their heads above water.” The report labelled this situation a vicious reinforcing circle.
“Over the years, I feel that governments have failed to address the crisis even with all the information provided to them, and as a result we’re here now with our current working conditions that have led to this situation: we’re not monetarily being compensated for the work being done because it’s taking such a physical, emotional and mental drain on us,” Teare explained.
She is very concerned about the mental health of nursing home workers. Statistics show that nursing home workers have an increased use of anti-anxiety medication. The sector is predominantly female. “We get up in the morning and get our children ready, you’re caring all day, making sure the kids are taken care of, the residents are taken care of. So who is taking care of those who are taking care of our seniors?”
Teare believes that Premier Higgs and other senior decision makers are “only seeing CUPE, and that’s unfortunate.” She says that if they could see past CUPE they would see workers who provide a good quality public service. “And when you provide service within the community you live in, you’re going to be more apt to take the pride when you’re doing that, from building up the cement on the curb when you’re taking a walk and you’re saying to your daughter: ‘hey mommy or daddy did that.'”
She believes it’s unfortunate that the media reports about the struggle of nursing home workers are always about wages. “Wages are very important,” she says, but it’s also about “recognition and respect.”
“As women working in a predominantly female sector, we don’t complain, we’re care providers. As workers as a whole, we have to stand up and value our worth, and say: It’s OK to value yourself enough to say that I’m worth more, and until that recognition happens within the sector, we’re not going to have the resources to be able to give the care.”
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.