Home care personal support workers used as cheap labour
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Home care workers in Ontario feel they are being used by the government as cheap labour in a system that isn’t being given enough funding.
Jan 04 2014. By: Charmaine Kelegan
Like many home care personal support workers, I came from another land. In my case, it’s Jamaica. Others come from Russia, the Philippines, Latin America and Africa. From all over the world, really. Home care agency employers like this because we can speak to our mostly elderly clients in their native languages.
Almost all of us are women and many, like me, are single moms.
Some of us were nurses or midwives back home. Here, our qualifications don’t count for much. We usually have to work as housekeepers while taking the personal support worker course. Some of us are still paying off our education loans.
We take care of people with dementia, who have had strokes or heart problems, or who just aren’t able to take care of themselves like they used to. They are sick and frail, but with our care they can stay out of hospital. Most are elderly women. After taking care of their families and spouses, many are left on their own. Their world gets smaller and smaller until often it’s just their room and us.
When I’m with a client (that’s what we are supposed to call the people we provide supports to) I’ll help her bathe, check that she is taking her medication, perhaps change a dressing or catheter, and sometimes do some meal preparation and a little bit of housekeeping.
With our support, clients can continue to stay in their homes. But it’s not unusual for a personal support worker to know when a client needs more medical care than we can provide at home.
On one home visit, my client was just lying there and I asked her if she was OK. She hadn’t been taking her medication. She has kidney problems. I said to her, do you want me to take you over to Mount Sinai? She didn’t want to go. She doesn’t like the hospital. But I knew she was unwell and I called the ambulance. Her blood pressure was sky-high. They took her to hospital and she was admitted for five days.
For me, helping people is the main joy of the job. I’ve had a client for a couple of years and I am the only person who goes in to see her. Sometimes she doesn’t really have anything to eat. So I’ll take stuff from my home or get a sandwich from a store to tide her over until she gets her pension. That’s the kind of thing personal support workers do that never really gets recognized.
I start at 9:30 in the morning. I have a client for two hours. My next client might be at 1:30 in the afternoon, so there is a big gap in between. When it is cold, like now, I find somewhere warm to sit. If I’m lucky, there will be a mall nearby. One co-worker moved to a more expensive apartment downtown so she would have somewhere to go between clients.
Premier Kathleen Wynne and the government people talk like they are the saviours of medicare because they are saving money by taking care of people in the home rather than in nursing homes or hospitals. But sometimes people are too sick to be home with only a few hours of home care a day. And there are so many frail clients who need more home care than they are given in a week. I wish the premier would understand this. Instead, she talks a lot about saving money.
On the wages home care personal support workers make, the government should be saving money. I make $15.57 per hour. Only half of the PSWs I work with at my agency are full-time employees. But few actually work a full 36- or 40-hour week, since 21 hours a week is what is considered full-time at my agency. Hours are irregular and inconsistent. So you never know how many hours you are working and how much you are going to make in any given week. It makes it very difficult to budget so that you have enough money for rent, food and unexpected expenses.
The average personal support worker at my agency makes $18,423 a year. On that wage, there is no room to put aside anything for extra savings or a pension. We are unionized and even though our wages would be considered poverty-level by many people we make a lot more than most other personal support workers.
Across Ontario, there are tens of thousands of home care personal support workers who don’t belong to a union. Most make the personal support worker minimum wage of $12.50 an hour that was set by the province nearly seven years ago. Most do not get paid for travel time between clients. Some even have to pay for their own transportation and gas. That’s not a living wage.
Although at my agency we have negotiated family benefits, most home care workers have no benefits. Family benefits have meant a whole lot. Before getting family benefits it was so rough. My younger daughter has asthma and bad allergies. She carries an EpiPen and puffers, and uses other medications as well. My big daughter has thyroid problems that require expensive drugs. Before the benefits, I couldn’t even buy the whole prescription; I had to buy half and go back later for the rest.
Because my weekly earnings as a personal support worker are not enough, I also work as a home maker for the same agency. This is work that is funded differently by the province. So I actually make more when I do that — more for cleaning than for taking care of people. Our employer would like to pay personal support workers the same as home makers, but the government doesn’t fund it.
I keep hearing the health minister talk about how important and valuable the work of personal support workers is to the health system. But I and the women I work with don’t feel very valued. It seems to us we are being used by the government as cheap labour in a home care system that isn’t given enough funding so that clients get more care and supports, and personal support workers are respected with better pay and working conditions.
Charmaine Kelegan is a personal support worker in Toronto and a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 4308.