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For 15 years, Halima has supported herself and her three children by working long hours taking care of older clients in retirement homes or in their personal residences in Toronto.

But as COVID-19 infections surged last year, Halima’s hours were slashed because care workers in Ontario were restricted to working in only one facility, and suddenly she could not afford the 1,800 Canadian dollars ($1,407) monthly rent on her apartment.

Halima, who asked to be identified by her first name only, has managed to keep a roof over her head by cutting back on groceries. As a part-time worker, she has no benefits and no paid sick days.

“Food and rent, everything is very expensive. It’s hard to live now,” Halima said in an interview.

Canada is struggling to tame a second wave of COVID-19 and stop the spread of new variants. Older people have borne the brunt of the pandemic: 70% of Canada’s more than 20,000 COVID-19 deaths have been in long-term care homes.

Personal support workers (PSWs) have long wrestled with housing insecurity in expensive Canadian cities, but the pandemic has worsened the situation for many, pushing some into homelessness and leaving others teetering on the brink, according to workers, shelter administrators, union officials and health advocates.

At the heart of their struggle are low wages and fewer hours amid pandemic restrictions that do not allow them to work at multiple care homes. The problem is most acute among part-time workers at for-profit care homes.

In populous Ontario, most PSWs are women and about 60% work in for-profit care homes, many in part-time, high-turnover jobs, according to a recent Canadian Women’s Foundation report.

Some are paid close to minimum wage, meaning they earn barely enough even with full-time hours to skirt the poverty level for a single person with no dependents. A recent survey found 67% of PSWs reported earning less take-home pay now than before the pandemic.

Even full-time care workers making the average wage in Ontario would fall short of the poverty level for a family of four in Toronto.

“I suspect that people who were one to two paychecks away from experiencing homelessness … now don’t have that insulation,” said Naheed Dosani, a doctor and health justice activist in Toronto.

Dosani added the “broken” system that is pushing frontline workers, including essential health workers, into homelessness is also a community health risk, as workers could carry COVID-19 from care homes to shelters and back.

Indeed, an outbreak at an Ottawa homeless shelter last year originated with two women who had jobs in long-term care but were living in the shelter.

“They just can’t earn enough money to afford Ottawa’s rental circumstances,” Dr. Jeff Turnbull, medical director at Ottawa Inner City Health, told a commission investigating COVID-19 in Ontario care homes in late December.

“And so they brought COVID from a long-term care facility into the shelters where we had an outbreak,” Turnbull said.

There are no official statistics on PSWs living in shelters and other emergency housing, though frontline staff in Ottawa and Toronto said it is an growing issue.

At Cornerstone Housing for Women in Ottawa, shelter use is up 47.5% compared with pre-pandemic, executive director Sarah Davis said. The organization now serves about 200 women a day and about 5% of them are frontline workers, including PSWs.

“Women are trying to save up money and (living in shelters) is one of the only options they might have,” said Davis.

Cornerstone and three other Ottawa shelters stopped taking new clients this week because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

In British Columbia, the province introduced pandemic wage top-ups of up to CA$7 an hour and guaranteed hours. Ontario, Alberta and others did not protect hours, resulting in less work and less income for many workers, unions say.

The situation is particularly harsh in Ontario, where rents are high and where many for-profit care homes prefer to keep workers on part-time contracts rather than take on the expense of full-time staff.

“In some of these homes 70% of the workforce is part-time. Why do they want them part-time? Because they don’t have to pay them sick time and benefits,” said Katha Fortier, a senior official at Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union.

Low wages and the precarious nature of PSW work is not unique to Canada. Most long-term care workers in OECD countries are women and a large share are part-time, according to a 2019 OECD paper. A significant number hold multiple jobs to get by.

Still, Canada spends less than the OECD average on long-term care as a percentage of GDP: 1.3% compared to 1.7%, according to OECD data.

In Vancouver, Canada’s most expensive housing market, Agnes Pecson lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, adult daughter and teenage son.

Pre-pandemic, Pecson was working 55 hours a week between two jobs. Now she works full-time at one and, even with B.C.’s wage top-up, is barely getting by.

“We just live paycheck to paycheck,” Pecson said.

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