Amanda Hodgkins, a disability support worker, says a “staffing crisis” at Community Living Essex County in southwestern Ontario has it “pretty close” to its breaking point.
In June 2022, Hodgkins said, she worked 35 hours straight at her designated group home because no other staff member could replace her. She said she was not warned that she would be required to work consecutive shifts and that she missed her children’s end-of-year soccer tournament.
“We have a passion for creating change in the lives of the people we support, but we don’t get recognized or appreciated, and we don’t have that work-life balance,” she said.
“We work 50, 60, 70 hours a week just to make a decent wage.”
Throughout her work day, Hodgkins helps people with mental, developmental or learning disabilities manage their medications, develop relationships and participate in community activities.
Hodgkins said it’s not uncommon for her and her co-workers to work multiple shifts in a row, because there may not be a replacement for staff who call in sick. When no additional staff is available, she said, their workload increases significantly.
CUPE Local 3137, which represents Community Living Essex County workers, is currently in negotiations to obtain a new collective agreement.
Local president Paul Brennan told CBC News that staff working long hours is a “persistent” problem he’s looking to address.
“Maybe you didn’t bring toiletries and found out you’re stuck for the night. Maybe you work somewhere a little further away and don’t have enough meals to take you to the next one, so yes, (working long hours) is very disruptive to the lives of our members,” Brennan said.
Karen Bolger, executive director of Community Living Essex County, told CBC News that Hodgkins working 35 hours straight was “totally contrary to what we do.”
“We don’t want this to happen. We’re horrible that this happened to this employee. We don’t think this is safe or good for anyone.”
She added that at the time, several of their homes were experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, which could be why some staff members were unable to come to work.
Bolger said they have on-call staff who can fill in for them and the organization is looking to “strengthen” that roster.
During the pandemic, Bolger said, a number of staff members left the organization. Since then, it has been difficult to hire new people, she added.
She said her organization had “dedicated significant human and financial resources to recruiting new employees.” However, she added that recruitment “is a significant issue for developmental service agencies 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 primarily funded by the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, which provided it with $38.7 million for its 2023-24 budget.
She also said there has not been an increase in base funding since 2008, and that her organization and other members of Community Living Ontario are calling for a five per cent increase in the base budget to help to inflate operating costs.
Getting that additional funding, Bolger said, would then allow the organization to allocate more money toward salaries.
In an email to CBC News on Monday, the ministry said it recognized “the sector’s concerns and the impact on workers, and we recognize that these challenges may impact the support provided to those who rely on our services “.
For 2023-2024, the government announced that it will invest $3.4 billion in services for people with developmental disabilities, an increase of $841 million compared to 2018-2019.
He said he was also working to help the sector with recruitment and retention strategies.
Workers without a contract for almost a year
Community Living Essex County has been without a contract since March.
Bolger said the earliest the union can meet is five months after the contract expires.
She wouldn’t go into details about the contract, but said negotiations were going well and she planned to meet with the union again later this month.
Local 3137 told CBC News that higher wages and staff stuck on the job are two main bargaining issues.
According to Brennan, the collective agreement does not allow workers to receive overtime unless they have worked more than 14 consecutive hours.
He said he hopes to have a contract by the end of the month.