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Wake-up call: Sudbury isn't facing a PSW crisis, it's in one

Survey of region's personal support workers detail poor working conditions, low pay and a suprisingly high rate of on-the-job injury
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Workforce Planning for Sudbury & Manitoulin surveyed personal support workers in the area and found the vast majority feel they are at the bottom of the health-care pecking order, even though the provide a necessary service. (File)

The Sudbury region isn't headed toward a crisis when it comes to personal support workers — it's already in one. 

That's the conclusion of a recent survey conducted by Workforce Planning for Sudbury & Manitoulin of personal support workers (PSWs).

Workforce Planning is one of 26 planning boards across Ontario mandated to conduct labour market research into a range of occupations and various industries to understand current and emerging issues related to growth and demand, training requirements, recruitment practices and other labour market factors.

The organization surveyed roughly 80 PSWs, and a number of key items jumped off the page when comparing the results of the survey. Overall, the survey showed that Personal Support Workers feel they are overworked, underpaid and undervalued.

On May 2, Extendicare Falconbridge employees took to the streets for an information picket, calling on their parent company to better support frontline staff.

During that picket, Extendicare Falconbridge PSW Shantel Cashmore explained that it's a daily occurrence that the long-term care home is short-staffed. On any given day, there should be at least 10 people working directly with residents, at a 1:8 ratio, where one PSW is working directly with eight residents.

On most days at Extendicare Falconbridge, that number is closer to six people working, with a ratio of 1:14.

"(Personal Support Workers) work long and precarious hours, 75 per cent receive $20 an hour or less in wages, 57 per cent receive no benefits and they are often not considered part of the healthcare team, even though many of the duties that were once in the domain of the nursing profession have been downloaded to PSWs," said a news release from Workforce Planning for Sudbury & Manitoulin.

It's estimated that there are approximately 100,000 PSWs working across the province, and more will be needed as the population ages and people are living longer. Currently there is no provincial regulatory body in place to ensure fair wages and policies are in place for PSWs.

"We've heard this before that personal support workers are almost at the bottom of the pecking order," said Reggie Caverson, the executive director of Workforce Planning.

"We know from the work that goes on in health care, a lot of the focus is on medical doctors, physicians, surgeons and nurses, and often not on those other groups that are supporting the health care system."

Caverson says that the challenges facing this occupation are wide-ranging, and often PSWs aren't even at the table for meetings to find solutions.

“It’s hard for any of us to imagine working in our job, where on a daily basis, we could experience the risk of rude and abusive clients, physical injury, verbal abuse, impossible workloads, safety issues such as vital client information that is missing and sexual harassment," said Caverson. 

"In some cases, there isn’t even time to grieve a client the PSW has been caring for, who has died.” 

Although the survey did not ask how often a PSW may have endured these experiences, close to 90 per cent reported dealing with difficult clients and 54 per cent reported experiencing physical injury. 

"It was like a floodgate when we surveyed people, and since that time there's other PSWs that we've spoken to who have added additional comments about what they were experiencing," said Caverson. "It really was a flood of 'yes, these are all the issues that we're experiencing,' so that's why we've released this information."

Workforce Planning will be working with the city and holding stakeholder meetings involving agencies that employ PSWS, along with post-secondary institutions that educate and train future PSWs.

"We really do need to talk about this, how can we improve this situation?" said Caverson. 

"What's within your control in the city, what's within your control in your own agency, but also we know that there are some provincial level issues that need to be addressed. I don't think this is a new problem, it's just we've been hearing more and more about this and there's momentum building, so if you ask 'are we in a crisis?' yes we are, we're already there, but it's been largely ignored."

All of these issues should be a wake-up call says Caverson. PSWs are relied upon to care, whether that care is delivered to people in their homes while convalescing or to help them stay in their own home, in hospital or in long-term care and nursing home facilities. They provide a necessary service, but are often, it appears from the survey, treated as an after-thought.

"PSWs are caring, compassionate professionals and we need to make sure that they are treated and respected as such. We need to listen to what they are saying.”




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