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A worker is seen closing the curtains at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, on March 25, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Care aides have overwhelmingly voted to unionize at the North Vancouver nursing home that was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 death in March, a move that labour organizers across the country say is the first success in a push to gain more members in the long-term care sector ravaged by the virus.

Ninety-six per cent of the workers at Lynn Valley Care Centre mailed a ballot in favour of joining the Hospital Employees’ Union, according to a recent announcement from the union, which represents more than 15,000 care aides in British Columbia‘s nursing homes. Workers at two other sites were also voting on whether to join the HEU.

The HEU, which is the B.C. health care arm of the federal Canadian Union of Public Employees, said it is actively organizing in other facilities across the province, but could not disclose where or at how many sites.

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The rival BC Government and Services Employees’ Union, which represents nearly 5,000 workers in nursing and retirement homes across the province, said it is organizing more care aides in the sector to join its union – in part because non-unionized workers can often get paid between $3 to $5 less an hour.

Hugh Pouliot, an Ottawa-based CUPE spokesperson, said his union represents about 65,000 long-term care workers across the country, with about half employed in Ontario and 10,000 in Quebec – the two provinces hardest hit by the novel coronavirus. He said CUPE has not certified any new groups of members in Ontario since the pandemic hit, but there are drives under way at several facilities.

“It’s a pretty natural reaction,” he said of workers in the sector approaching unions during the pandemic. “When people see their working conditions and the protections that are supposed to be there are failing them, then they’re going to look for a solution.”

BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said before the pandemic hit there was a vast disparity in wages, benefits and working conditions in the sector.

On March 6, Lynn Valley announced it had an outbreak. Two days later, it had the first death among the 20 residents eventually killed by the virus. A Globe and Mail investigation found staff and relatives of residents critical of the disorganized response from management and a trio of subcontractors to the initial outbreak, which infected nearly 80 staff and residents before being declared over last month.

Lynn Valley Care Centre said in a Monday statement that it respects the decision of these employees and the subcontractor in charge of care aides, Pro Vita Care Management Inc., has assured the private owners that the level of care will remain the same and operations will continue as normal.

Pro Vita, in a separate statement, said it also respects the rights of all employees and it will be “business as usual” at Lynn Valley after the union vote.

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B.C.‘s Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie said it is too early to say whether the province’s unionized long-term care homes fared better during the first wave of the coronavirus, in part because it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the labour situation across these facilities, which are operated by a mix of public, non-profit or for-profit entities.

She said, in the past, if subcontracted care aides voted to unionize at a publicly funded nursing home, the operator might “flip” the contract to another non-unionized firm, which often rehired the same people for less pay. But the provincial NDP government outlawed that practice two years ago with legislation, Ms. Mackenzie said.

At the end of March, B.C.‘s Provincial Health Officer issued an order restricting workers at long-term care homes to one facility only and guaranteeing equal pay.

Ms. Mackenzie said she is not sure that more unionization is the only solution to the sector’s problems, but equal pay is needed for workers across all facilities, and a standardized approach to just one employer hiring all the workers at a facility, whether unionized or not, is preferable to the current system.

Mike Klassen, acting chief executive officer of the BC Care Providers Association, which represents about 340 non-government operators around the province, said COVID-19 has hit all types of nursing homes – with two of the three deadliest outbreaks occurring at unionized facilities.

Just more than 80 per cent of Canada’s known COVID-19 deaths from March to the end of May were residents of long-term care facilities, according to a recent report from the national health care statistics agency that showed this rate was the worst among a group of 17 wealthy countries.

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