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With Gotcare, CEO and co-founder Chenny Xia is trying to address the wage gap that she believes is at the heart of the home care worker shortage in Canada.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Kellie Hastings recalls a time, almost three years ago, when she was on the verge of quitting her job at a large home care services company. “This was before the pandemic – and even then, it was truly horrible. We received rude and abusive treatment from our superiors, and because we had so many clients, it was hard to cultivate a relationship with any one of them,” she told The Globe and Mail recently.

She had been a personal support worker for seven years by then. One day, as she was browsing social media and job sites, she came across a home care company called Gotcare, which offered to pay its employees a living wage while allowing them to work flexible hours.

She’s now been employed at Gotcare for more than two years and describes her job as “fabulous.” She has even received a few raises over the years. “I love the job I do. I can’t believe I was thinking of quitting being a PSW,” she said.

A relatively unknown Toronto-based startup, Gotcare was founded in 2018 with the aim of connecting people in need with occupational therapists and in-home nurses. Even before the pandemic – when the demand for home care services skyrocketed and the number of workers simultaneously declined – the industry was facing a crisis in Canada, according to Gotcare chief executive officer Chenny Xia, who co-founded it alongside Carol MacDonald, a former occupational therapist.

“The biggest problem with home care is that it does not work for workers. Many of them are underpaid, and they don’t have consistency in employment,” Ms. Xia explained. “As we saw in the pandemic, many home care workers ended up getting hospital jobs or finding work in long-term care homes because they needed some stability.”

Earlier this year, Home Care Ontario, an association representing roughly 28,000 home care workers, issued an urgent call for almost $500-million in funding from the provincial government to “fix wage inequalities” that the association said had dramatically worsened during the pandemic.

The group estimates that the home care industry has lost some 4,000 nurses over the past two years, with many quitting the sector altogether.

“Home care staff are paid less than their equivalents in other parts of the system to perform similar work. Personal support workers, for example, are paid at least $5 per hour more to work in long-term care homes and hospitals,” Sue VanderBent, the CEO of Home Care Ontario, said in a January statement to the province.

That wage gap is exactly what Ms. Xia is trying to address with Gotcare; she believes it is at the heart of the home care worker shortage in Canada.

Through its website, Gotcare matches workers with families and individuals – both parties fill out a form outlining their skillsets and experience or their personal needs, and an algorithm matches workers to clients.

“It is all about personalized matching as opposed to having a revolving door of care workers. You want someone to speak the same language? No problem. You need someone who lives within a five-minute commute who can be there on short notice? Also no problem,” Ms. Xia said.

Critically, Gotcare’s home care workers are actually on the company payroll: It pays them a living wage, starting at $23 an hour, as well as EI and CPP benefits. Workers are also entitled to vacation pay, based on the number of hours worked. Ms. Xia says such an employment model gives workers the flexibility they want – they can accept or reject gigs, much like Uber drivers – but ensures they have workplace rights.

Joan Kerr, a Toronto-based personal support worker, quit her job with another home care company during the pandemic because Gotcare offered a significantly higher wage. That allowed her to work fewer hours and cultivate better relationships with her clients. Her biggest criticism of previous employers, beyond the wage issue, was that she could not negotiate her schedule directly with her clients.

“This is more relaxing. You’re not killing yourself at your job,” said Ms. Kerr, who works as many as 30 hours a week with Gotcare.

Last November, the startup raised $1.2-million in a seed round that included investors such as Red Thread Ventures, SheEO – a venture fund that supports women and non-binary folk – and the Telus Pollinator Fund for Good.

Gotcare gets its revenue from private insurance companies that cover the cost of home care for employees with workplace benefits, as well as two government-funded programs: Ontario’s Family Match and the federal government’s Jordan’s Principle, which supports Indigenous children with disabilities. The core development and managerial team consists of about 20 employees, and Gotcare employs hundreds of care workers, Ms. Xia said.

“For competitive reasons, we’ve decided to not disclose the exact number of workers we have,” she added.

She also said the startup is currently not set up to accommodate requests for stints of less than 50 minutes. “The main problem is that you can’t hold on to that worker if you offer short gigs – unless there’s a situation where you have multiple families in one area who need home care help all at the same time, in the same neighbourhood.”

Her goal is to expand the business so that even people without insurance coverage can afford home care.

She believes that creating stability in the home care work force is the key to improving the service in Canada. “Until we can make this a job that people want, where they feel valued in terms of how much they get compensated and their work environment, we will always have a care crisis.”

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