Every two weeks, Zoe gets her schedule for the personal support workers who come to her home to help her. These days, it’s got several empty slots and she says it’s a constant source of anxiety.
“I’m always trying to think, is my service going to show up today, is someone going to call and cancel? What’s my back-up plan?” said Zoe, who has spastic cerebral palsy. She relies on a PSW to help her use the toilet and with tasks like showering, changing clothes and preparing meals.
Zoe is not her real name. CBC News has agreed to use a pseudonym because the 40 year old fears a backlash from the agency that provides the PSWs.
The workers, who come from a government-funded agency, are supposed to come three or four times a day, every day. But when there isn’t enough staff, she says she’s forced to find a friend or family member to step in.
“That I have to rely on them so much, it makes me feel like I’m a burden,” said Zoe.
Some in health care say the shortage of PSWs in Ontario is worse than it’s ever been. They say not only is it leaving vulnerable people like Zoe without help, it’s putting more pressure on those still working in the field. Some PSWs say more and more are leaving the job because of burnout and stress. With the provincial election just days away, there are growing calls for the party that forms the government to seriously address the issue.
‘We’re not just numbers’
Zoe says her wish is to live on her own for as long as possible, but like many people with disabilities, she feels left behind.
“We feel forgotten,” she said.
“We’re not just numbers to the government. We should be seen as people with feelings and hopes and lives.”
She says there was a shortage of PSWs at her agency even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has made it even worse.
“I’ll get a call, let’s say, an hour before service, saying, ‘Your PSW is unavailable.’ Sometimes they don’t have anyone to send because they’re so short staffed.”
Zoe says she’s had challenges with some staff, but says she’s endured it because she needs the help.
“I don’t want to put the blame on anyone. I understand that they’re overworked and they’re underpaid as well. Very, very underpaid, in my opinion,” she said.
But she says she “shouldn’t have to take emotional or verbal abuse” just to get the care she needs.
Gina Wray, who has worked in the field for 32 years, is one of many PSWs who say they’re on the verge of leaving.
“I’m to the point where my body’s telling me that I’m tired, both mentally, physically,” said Wray, who works at a home for people with developmental disabilities in Muskoka.
“It’s a challenging job and I’m just looking to move on now.”
Wray says before the shortages, her job allowed her to give clients the one-on-one time they needed. That’s now cut down to just a few minutes.
“Some days I go home, and I think: you know, if only I had more time to do a proper care or only if I had more time to listen to somebody, a little story. Or what if I could have just sat for for two minutes because they’re having a really bad day,” said Wray.
“We don’t have time for that,” she added.
“A factory wouldn’t work short. So why are we doing it on the front line?”
Wray and others believe a wage increase and better job stability would help keep PSWs in the field and recruit more.
“It’s the worst that I have ever seen,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, a union representing 60,000 workers in Ontario.
“Graduates coming out of the PSW colleges go into the profession and we’re seeing on average that they don’t last more than three months because of the working conditions.”
Stewart says PSWs who work in home care receive on average 35 cents a litre for gas, and with current prices, many are paying more and more out of pocket to do their jobs.
“They literally are paying to go to work,” said Stewart.
Stewart says one of the key issues, in addition to low wages, is job security. She says there are fewer and fewer full time jobs for PSWs in areas like home care and many leave to work in other areas that offer stable full-time work.
What the parties are promising
If re-elected, the PC’s told CBC News they will invest $2.8 billion over the next three years to make the $3 an hour wage hike for personal support workers permanent.
The Liberals say they’re committing to fair wages for all PSWs and promise that if they’re elected they’ll raise the base pay for PSWs to $25 an hour.
The NDP is pledging to hire 10,000 more PSWs, as well as offer a $5–an–hour raise above the wages they were making pre-pandemic.
The Greens say they’d raise the minimum hourly wage to $25 for PSWs and pay for travel time between visits.
The Liberals, NDP and the Greens are all pledging to repeal Bill 124 — legislation that limits annual salary increases to one per cent for many public sector workers in the province.
Meanwhile, Zoe says she can only hope these pledges will make a difference, and that she can continue living her life with support.
“I try to be as independent as possible … It’s tough but I try to take it one day at a time,” she said.
“I try not to let anyone see how much of a toll it takes on me.”
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