Disability support worker Amanda Hodgkins says a “staffing crisis” at Community Living Essex County in southwestern Ontario has her “pretty close” to her breaking point.
In June 2022, Hodgkins said, she worked 35 hours straight at her designated group home as there were no other staff members who could relieve her. She said she was given no notice that she’d be required to work multiple consecutive shifts, and she missed out on her children’s end-of-year soccer tournament.
“We have a passion to create change in the lives of people we support, but we are not being acknowledged or appreciated, and we don’t have that work-life balance,” she said.
“We’re working 50, 60, 70 hours a week just to earn a livable wage.”
Throughout her work day, Hodgkins helps people with mental, developmental or learning disabilities manage their medications, develop relationships and take part in community activities.
Hodgkins said it’s not uncommon for her and her colleagues to work multiple shifts in a row, as there might not be any replacements for staff who call in sick. When no additional staff are available, she said, their workload significantly increases.
CUPE Local 3137, which represents workers at Community Living Essex County, is currently in bargaining to secure a new contract.
Local president Paul Brennan told CBC News that staff working long hours is a “persistent” issue they’re looking to address.
“You might not have brought any toiletries and found out you’re stuck for the night. You might be working at a location that is a little further out and you don’t have enough meals to carry you to the next, so yeah, [working long hours] is very disruptive in our members’ lives,” said Brennan.
Karen Bolger, Community Living Essex County’s executive director, told CBC News that Hodgkins working 35 hours straight is “totally against what we do.”
“We don’t want that to happen. We feel horrible that it did happen to that employee. We don’t find it’s safe or it’s good for anybody.”
She added that at the time, several of their homes had been in COVID-19 outbreaks, which might be why some staff were unable to come in to work.
Bolger said they have on-call employees who can fill in and the organization is looking to “beef up” that list.
During the pandemic, Bolger said, quite a few staff members left the organization. Since then, it has been difficult to hire new people, she added.
She said her organization has “dedicated substantial human and financial resources to recruiting new employees.” However, she added that recruitment “is a significant issue for developmental service organizations across the province.”
Bolger said Community Living Essex County has about 640 unionized direct support workers who help care for about 700 people with developmental disabilities.
Bolger said the organization is mostly funded through Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, which provided them with $38.7 million for their 2023-2024 budget.
She also said there hasn’t been a base funding increase since 2008, and her organization and others under Community Living Ontario are calling for a five per cent base budget increase to help with inflating operational costs.
Getting this additional funding, said Bolger, would then allow the organization to allocate more money to wages.
In an email to CBC News on Monday, the ministry said it recognizes “the concerns of the sector and the impact on workers, and we acknowledge that these challenges can impact the support provided to those who depend on our services.”
For 2023-2024, the government said it is investing $3.4 billion in developmental services, an increase of $841 million over 2018-2019.
It said it’s also working to help the sector with recruitment and retention strategies.
Workers without a contract for nearly a year
Community Living Essex County has been without a contract since March.
Bolger said the earliest the union could meet was five months after the contract had expired.
She didn’t want to get into the specifics of the contract, but said bargaining is going well and she’s set to meet with the union again later this month.
Local 3137 told CBC News that higher wages and staff getting stuck at work are two main bargaining issues.
According to Brennan, the collective agreement doesn’t allow workers to collect overtime unless they’ve been put in more than 14 consecutive hours.
He said he hopes to have a contract by the end of the month.