Niagara to hire 95 more LTC staff, to meet provincial care target

While facing a province-wide shortage of nurses, Niagara Region plans to hire 95 more staff members by April for the eight long-term care homes it runs, to meet the enhanced care requirements from the province.

Community services commissioner Adrienne Jugley expects to face a challenge recruiting the staff, while facing competition from other long-term care homes that are also trying to recruit staff to meet the requirements.

“This is a big effort. It’s not just about money and putting a sign up,” Jugley told members of Niagara’s public health and social services committee, Tuesday.

“It’s one of the reasons why we want to have a bit of a runway, because we know this work isn’t easy to get done in the timing the province expects us to have these positions in place.”

The majority of staff being hired with $12.9 million of additional provincial funding will be front-line nurses as well as other positions required to meet provincial legislation such as personal support workers.

The province’s Fixing Long-Term Care Act, approved last year, calls for gradual care enhancements, targeting an average of four hours of direct care to be provided per resident per day by March 2025. The region will receive $16.2 million next year to further increase staffing levels to meet the target.

The additional staff, Jugley added, “are legislated requirements to not just do the postings, but to actually have them there at the beside providing care.”

“It’s a very challenging environment, 100 per cent, and not only are we going to be competing with other long-term care homes, but also hospitals and home and community care and all the other health care providers that are struggling to find staff,” Jugley said.

Ontario Nurses’ Association has estimated the province needs 22,000 to 30,000 more nurses to meet the average registered nurse-to-population ratio in other provinces.

Jugley, however, said she’s “cautiously optimistic” after the region’s seniors services and human resources departments had some success recruiting staff during the past few months.

She said the region is looking at “innovative” recruitment initiatives, such as bringing in internationally trained nurses and helping them fast track getting approvals needed to work here.

The region is also focused on making its homes “great places to work, and welcoming staff — that’s part of the job of our team and I’m really impressed with those efforts as well,” Jugley added.

Fort Erie Coun. Tom Insinna asked if the region is permitted to offer signing bonuses or offer other incentives to prospective staff.

Jugley said some incentives to help recruit nurses are already being used, “but I think we really have to be cautious about that.”

“There are financial implications,” she said. “We try to fund our programs largely through the funding that’s available, so when we start to look at bonusing and so on, that comes off of the levy — not the funds provided by the province.”

Jugley was also concerned about putting other long-term care homes at a disadvantage.

“We want all of Niagara’s long-term care homes to be successful,” she said.

“I think our approach is to really offer, good homes, a good place to work, good care, fair compensation and then sort of go from there.”

Jugley said Niagara already provides higher wages than some of the privately-run facilities in the region, both for and non-profit.

Nursing jobs currently listed on the region’s website offer salaries of $34.40 to $49.24 per hour.

However, Jugley said the Niagara’s homes are also in competition with hospitals for nurses, and the region may be paying nurses less than they’d earn working in some acute care settings.

The recruitment efforts come on the heals of staff shortages and burnout that was impacting long-term care homes, particularly at the height of a major wave of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year.

“We saw a lot of absenteeism due to COVID-19 that created quite a bit of pressure on staff,” Jugley said.

“It was hard quite frankly on the entire system, particularly at the height of the Omicron wave.”

She said the region has since made progress filling vacancies that contributed to those pressures, although efforts continue to ensure there are enough staff to manage any future surges in infection “because unfortunately the pandemic is not gone, and we still have periods of time when we see outbreaks in homes and illness among staff.”

Jugley said the new provincial legislation will also help ensure homes can better cope with any future issues.

“Even pre-pandemic, long-term care was understaffed,” she said, adding the needs of the residents has become “far more significant in the last 10 to 15 years.”

“I don’t think we were ever adequately funded. When you add a pandemic on top of a stress that already exists, you’re not going to be in a good place.”

Committee Chair Pat Chiocchio said long-term care advocates have lobbied to get four hours of care per day, per resident for more than a decade.

“We finally have it, but it’s 10 years too late,” said the Welland regional councillor who worked in long-term care throughout his career.

“The number is not four anymore, it’s way beyond four. We’re glad to get the four now, but please keep in mind that people are still struggling, the staff are still struggling,” he said.

Jugley said if the needs of long-term care home residents were analyzed today, “they’d probably say you need more than the four hours.”

“But I’m going to take it because it’s the best improvement we’ve seen in staffing levels and funding in quite some time.”