It’s friggin’ freezing out here on the picket line, and I’m not dressed for it. Happily a lot of cars are honking their support for the strikers and that’s warms the heart at least. But the hot chocolate I brought along for the women is cooling quickly and my toes have gone numb. Still, it’s hard to turn away from the stories the personal support workers are telling me.
Sally says she is now in debt because she had to make a choice. Either pay the heating bill or fix her car. She chose the car because without it she couldn’t get to work and if she couldn’t get to work, she wouldn’t be paid. Sally works as a personal support worker making just over $15 an hour after a decade on the job. But today, one of the coldest days of December, she’s walking the picket line, on strike for a better deal. She’s not sure how long she can afford to do this because, while she’s on the line, she’s making $0 an hour.
I hear about the woman some of them helped get through a tough time. She was just divorced and struggling to finish the Personal Support Workers course at the local college—something she had to do before she could earn a paycheque. She was renting a poorly heated trailer that the owner wouldn’t fix.
She survived two bouts of pneumonia and a car that refused to drive in reverse. And she got her certificate. Who says the poor don’t want to work?
Their union, the Service Employees International Union, doesn’t have a lot of money and decent strike pay is out of the question. The women know that and their employer, Red Cross Care Partners, knows it too and will try to wait them out. In the meantime, the women fret about the people the company is sending around to tend to their clients.
Allowing employers to hire replacement workers is a nasty piece of union busting legislation passed by Mike Harris’ Common Sense government in Ontario and kept by the Liberals.
But it’s not the fact that replacement workers will break their strike that has these women worried. It’s whether they are treating their clients well. Here they are, going numb from hours on the picket line, worrying more about their patients than whether they’ll have the money to pay this month’s rent.
Many of the women I meet are closing in on senior-hood themselves. We have to put aside the notion that people in part time or low wage work are young and in it for experience and pocket change. Some of the ladies on the line have been working with “their clients” for over 20 years. For them an increase in pay is more than a living wage; it is a sign of respect for their professionalism.
After all, they’ve completed a course at a community college and put in 500 hours of supervised work in the field or a nursing home. Before they are hired they must be checked out by the police. Their union provides additional training and, through the grievance process, helps both workers and employers to conduct themselves with respect.
For the ladies on the line, personal service work is a profession. But you’d never know it by the way they’re treated.
The top of the wage scale is $15.02 an hour—even after 25 years. That’s tough when a living wage—what you need to survive in most of Ontario is $15.25. They must work 1,352 hours every year to get and hold onto their benefit package. That’s not always possible if clients are admitted to hospital, or pass on. Even with benefits, there is no sick pay – they must use their vacation time, and file a report saying that they are ill and how long they plan to stay ill.
They get $.34 a km when they travel, using their own car which they must maintain and gas up. Their $15.02 an hour doesn’t even kick in until they’re in the door of a client.
Once in the door, they do a lot more than wash dishes and prepare meals. They check and treat bed sores. They make sure people are taking their medications. They may have to use lifts in order to assist in bathing or mobility. They check catheters and colostomies and clean those areas to prevent infection. They clean the incontinent. They feed those with dementia, and those who have lost the use of their limbs, and those in palliative care.
To add insult to injury, personal support workers are the rock on which Ontario’s new health care system is built. It’s on their backs that the government is saving millions every years by keeping people out of acute and chronic care beds.
Hours on the road that don’t count for pay, “clients” that test their strength and patience, keeping people in their homes and out of more expensive care—and what do they get? Poverty wages and disrespect.
Update, March 2014
Before the strike was over, some of the workers had to go back to work because they were falling into debt. The dispute went to arbitration and they came out with a 2.4% raise over three years (less than 1% a year) and two cents more per kilometre for travel. The arbitrator simply followed the pattern set for all public service employees—whether they are professors, lawyers, nurses, doctors—or workers whose paycheque are already shorter than the month.