‘Care that is necessary for life’: Personal support workers need full-time, regulated work, experts say

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The Ontario government’s temporary $3-per-hour pay increase for personal support workers will be a “drop in the bucket” if those employees don’t have permanent, steady work, says a PSW who works in a Toronto long-term care facility.

“We appreciate it for sure,” Asona Kirton told The Current‘s Matt Galloway. “The challenge is now, do we get the full-time hours to then make this pay really be substantial to us? Because if we’re still going to be doing the part-time, then … it really doesn’t help.”

Last week, Premier Doug Ford announced a wage boost for more than 147,000 personal support workers, starting Oct. 1 and ending in March 2021. Earlier this year, Quebec set a plan to recruit another 10,000 long-term care workers by the fall, while B.C. announced it would hire an additional 7,000 people to work in long-term care homes and as health-care aides.

As a personal support worker, Kirton is responsible for feeding, changing and getting her patients washed up for the day, as well as helping them with their daily activities. It’s also a physically demanding job that involves lifting her patients.

However, the pay does not match up with the workload, she said, and many PSWs have to work several part-time gigs to make ends meet.

“Sometimes you end up working in one location and then having to run across the city to another location to your job,” Kirton explained.

Asona Kirton is a personal support worker at a long-term care facility in Toronto. She says if PSWs feel appreciated, they’ll be motivated to step up to the plate to tackle the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Asona Kirton)

She sees the Ontario government’s new $5,000 incentive for recent PSW graduates to work in long-term care as a “slap in the face” to those already in the field, and who stuck it out during the pandemic.

“I see where you want to encourage people to come in, but also encourage us to stay,” she said. 

Kirton added that she does not always feel valued for her work.

“I think more than anything else, personal support workers need to feel appreciated,” she said. “And if they do, they will step up to the plate and do what needs to be done to tackle the second wave.”

Many work full-time hours with no benefits

Natalie Stake-Doucet, president of the Quebec Nurses Association, said she feels that governments always seem to forget or ignore long-term care, even though it is essential work.

“It is care that is necessary for life,” she said. “So I think that’s something that needs to be recognized and celebrated.”

Providing PSWs with full-time positions would be one step to improving their working conditions, she said. 

The staff needs, and the residents need, the same people to take care of them day in, day out, as much as possible, so you can build relationships.– Natalie Stake-Doucet, Quebec Nurses Association president

In Quebec, many PSWs — or orderlies, as they’re called in that province — work full-time hours in part-time positions. 

“That means they don’t get benefits associated with a full-time position, and that obviously is problematic,” she said.

And it makes PSWs more vulnerable to managers moving them around all the time — something governments tried to curb during the first wave of the pandemic in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Full-time work also creates stability for the people receiving care, Stake-Doucet said.

“Long-term care is supposed to be, you know, a person’s place of life, not just care,” she said. “The staff needs, and the residents need, the same people to take care of them day in, day out, as much as possible, so you can build relationships.”

Personal support work is ‘care that is necessary for life,’ and deserves to be recognized as such, says Natalie Stake-Doucet, president of the Quebec Nurses Association. (David Donnelly/CBC)

But ultimately, personal support work is not seen as a “profession of choice,” said Laura Bulmer, a professor in the PSW program at George Brown College. 

She explained that doctors and nurses are at the top of the hierarchy of health-care jobs, while PSWs are considered to be at the bottom.

“And that’s the unfortunate thing, because they do the grunt work,” she said. “There’s no two ways about it.”

Regulating the profession could help fix some of its problems, she said.

“The lack of standardization is mind-boggling in this sector,” Bulmer said. 

For one, the job title has countless different names, depending on where you live. And there is no standardization of education for the role, she said, explaining that there are several paths to becoming a PSW, who graduate from programs based in colleges, high schools and private institutions. 

Oftentimes, PSWs are being asked to perform nursing skills, such as medication management, Bulmer added.

“So consideration needs to be given to creating a new level of nurse as well,” she said.

Laura Bulmer, a professor in the PSW program at George Brown College, says the industry needs to be regulated. (Submitted by Laura Bulmer)

Ontario focusing on recruiting, retention

In a statement to The Current, Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Social Services said it “recognizes the important role of PSWs in the health care system to enable aging at home, reducing costly hospital stays and in improving the health care experience in residential care settings.”

The government said it is focusing its attention on recruiting and retaining PSWs, as well as improving scheduling so they can work more hours during the day, reduce their travel, and stabilize their incomes.

“At this time no decisions have been made regarding PSW oversight,” the statement said. “The ministry continues its work to explore risk-based oversight tools for this profession and as this work expands, the ministry will reach out to key stakeholders and partners.”

Stake-Doucet agrees with Bulmer about the need for standardization in the profession — not only across provinces, but across the country.

“And I think our politicians need to understand what it means to work in long-term care,” she said.

The job is much more “complex” than people realize, and oftentimes politicians make decisions about it without grasping the nature of the work, she added. 

“They should take the time to understand what it means to be a personal support worker or to be in long-term care, and to listen to the people on the ground,” she said.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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