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Ontario vows to raise care workers’ wages

Deb Matthews speaks to the media following the swearing in of Kathleen Wynne was sworn in as Ontario's first female premier, on Feb. 11, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario Liberals are promising to boost the minimum wage of personal support workers in the home-care sector by $4 an hour, the latest in a long line of spending commitments the Wynne government is making in a bid to survive beyond Thursday's budget.

Health Minister Deb Matthews and Finance Minister Charles Sousa announced Tuesday that the Liberals would increase the minimum wage for 34,000 publicly paid PSWs to $16.50 an hour by April 1, 2016, up 32 per cent from the current rate of $12.50.

The first $1.50-an-hour of the raise is retroactive to April 1, meaning it would take effect even if the budget fails, forcing a snap election. The next $1.50 increase would kick in in 2015, and the final dollar would take effect in 2016.

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The Progressive Conservatives dismissed the pay hike as a pre-election ploy, while the New Democrats, the party that will determine the minority government's fate, chastised the Liberals for moving too slowly to address the recruitment problem plaguing the home-care field.

"They've made 39 announcements under their budget-leaking team and every single one of these has been to try to win seats in the upcoming elections," said Vic Fedeli, the Tory finance critic.

The PSW wage increase is expected to cost the government $50-million in 2014-2015, an outlay that would increase to $130.5-million a year in 2016-2017, if the proposal is fully implemented.

Mr. Sousa said he is planning to find the money in savings reaped from moving chronically ill and elderly patients out of expensive hospital beds – which cost nearly $1,000 a day to operate – and back into their homes, where they can be looked after by PSWs.

That is a "very smart investment," Ms. Matthews said, after announcing the pay hike to a cheering Toronto crowd of purple-shirted members of SEIU Healthcare, the arm of the Service Employees International Union that represents 11,000 PSWs. "As we attract and retain more people to work in the home-care sector, that takes big pressures off our hospitals and off our long-term care homes."

The home-care sector has struggled to recruit and keep workers, according to Sharleen Stewart, the president of SEIU Healthcare.

The pay is low, the hours are irregular and expenses such as mileage are not consistently covered by the private and non-profit companies that deliver home-care services in the province, she said.

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Ms. Matthews promised to work with providers to fix those problems over time.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has been trying to mend her party's relationship with organized labour after her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, angered some unions, particularly those representing teachers.

Along with courting labour leaders, the Liberals have been busy unveiling new spending plans they hope will either persuade NDP Leader Andrea Horwath to back their budget or peel away soft NDP voters if she opts to bring the government down.

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Health reporter

Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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