Demand for Personal Support Workers (PSWs) across Canada is at an all-time high. With long-term care homes hit hard by COVID-19, job boards are clogged with posts seeking qualified PSWs who can look after the physical and psychological needs of older adults and individuals with a diverse set of care needs. The pandemic has catapulted this profession into the spotlight, making it clear just how integral these individuals are to the health and well-being of our most vulnerable citizens.
Ontario needs between 10,000 and 15,000 PSWs right now, says Liberal Health Critic, John Fraser. In response, the government of Ontario has made a $26.3 million investment in PSWs and supportive care workers as part of our COVID-19 Fall Preparedness Plan. The investment includes temporary wage increases, training and recruitment funds, and investments in basic home care supports.
Personal Support Workers are on the front-lines of an ongoing health crisis that affects all of us, but what do PSWs truly need in order to do their jobs effectively?
Who are Personal Support Workers?
PSWs are by and large racialized women between the ages of 30-45 years old. Wanda Roberts, a PSW educator at Aurora College in Yellowknife, notes that many of her students are single parents. At the moment, these women are taking on the most at-risk job in Canada behind industrial miner, but it is not only the risk of contracting COVID that limits the current workforce. PSW demographics require that many have had to leave the work force due to lack of child care or have had to switch careers in order to make ends meet.
What Do Personal Support Workers Need?
1. Full Time Work with Benefits
In an interview with the CBC, Natalie Stake-Doucet, president of the Quebec Nurses Association, notes that a lack of full-time, stable work has been detrimental to maintaining our country’s PSW workforce. Personal Support Workers are often subjected to part time hours that preclude benefits, and are forced to take on more than one job in order to maintain a livable wage.
Providing full-time hours and benefits would have a positive impact on workers and clients alike. Personal support work, whether in a long-term care home, or a home care setting, is intimate work. Ashley MacLean, a PSW in London, Ontario, states, “you’re responsible for taking care of people’s physical, emotional, spiritual needs.” “You become their family,” says Laura Rolph, a support worker based in Newfoundland. Part-time hours mean inconsistent and impersonal care for our most vulnerable citizens.
There is no standard education, title, scope of practice, or national code of ethics for Canadian PSWs. Laura Bulmer, a professor at George Brown's personal support work program, calls this lack of standardization “mind-boggling”. Personal Support Workers have different titles across organizations and provinces, and encompass any number of tasks from companion care to nursing duties.
Professional and educational standardization will benefit providers and patients alike. Standard taxonomy and training will boost the credibility of the profession within the dominant biomedical model of care, resulting in the political will to support full-time hours, a livable wage and increased resources. Patients will benefit from a consistent level of training, a well-documented philosophy of care, and workers who are not struggling to support themselves while supporting our loved ones. Staff who are overworked and undervalued lack the energy and motivation to fulfill their potential as helping professionals.
It is no surprise that a workforce made up primarily of racialized women lacks the respect it deserves. Bulmer put it mildly when she noted that PSW is not seen as a “profession of choice” compared to doctor or nurse. This professional hierarchy is outrageous considering that PSWs are on the ground taking care of the most basic needs of our loved ones. The voices of personal support workers are often ignored in the public sphere, particularly in regard to governmental policy. The Toronto Star contends that “COVID-19 has led many of us to realize that workers often perceived as ‘low-skilled’ are actually fundamental to keeping our society functioning.” PSWs are among this group. We can show our respect for home care and long term care providers by advocating for their voices to be heard, their needs to be met, and treating each individual worker as an integral part of our health care system.
Maggie Clapperton is a social worker and content creator at Homecare Hub.