A disability support worker says long hours at work have brought her close to breaking point amid an employment crisis

Disability support worker Amanda Hodgkins says the “staffing crisis” at Community Living Essex in southwestern Ontario has left her “very close” to breaking point.

In June 2022, Hodgkins said, she worked 35 straight hours at her assigned group home because there were no other staff members who could relieve her. She said she received no notice that she would be required to work multiple shifts in a row, and she also missed her children’s soccer tournament at the end of the year.

“We have a passion to make a difference 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 livable wage.”

Throughout her work day, Hodgkins helps people with intellectual, developmental, or learning disabilities manage their medications, develop relationships, and participate in community activities.

The photo shows a building with a Community Living Essex sign and another sign reading
Community Living Essex supports around 700 people across the county and has around 640 direct support workers. (google maps)

Hodgkins said it’s not uncommon for her and her colleagues to work multiple shifts in a row, as there may not be any replacements for employees who call in sick. When additional staff are not available, their workload increases dramatically, she said.

CUPE Local 3137, which represents workers at Community Living Essex County, is currently bargaining to secure a new contract.

Local president Paul Brennan told CBC News that employees working long hours is an “ongoing” problem they are looking to address.

“Maybe you didn’t bring any toiletries and you find out you’re stuck all night. Maybe you’re working at a location that’s a little remote and you don’t have enough meals to get you to the next location, so yes, (working long hours) is very disruptive to our members’ lives,” Brennan said.

Karen Bolger, executive director of Community Living Essex County, told CBC News that Hodgkins working 35 straight hours is “completely inconsistent with what we do.”

“We don’t want that to happen. We feel very sorry for what happened to that employee. We don’t find it safe or beneficial for anyone.”

She added that at the time, many of their homes were experiencing coronavirus outbreaks, which may be why some employees were unable to come to work.

Bolger said they have on-call staff who can fill that position, and the organization is looking to “enhance” that roster.

Recruitment challenges

During the pandemic, a fair number of employees have left the organization, Bolger said. Since then, she added, it has become difficult to hire new people.

She said her organization “allocated significant human and financial resources to recruit new employees.” But she added that staffing “is an important issue for developmental services organizations across the province.”

Community Living Essex County has about 640 unionized direct support workers who help care for about 700 people with developmental disabilities, Bolger said.

Woman sitting at a desk with headphones on.
Karen Bolger, executive director at Community Living Essex County, says that during the pandemic, a fair number of employees left the organization, and since then, it’s been difficult to hire new employees. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

Bolger said the organization is funded mostly through Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, which provided them with $38.7 million for the 2023-2024 budget.

She also said there has not been an increase in core funding since 2008, and her organization and others affiliated with Community Living Ontario are calling for a 5 per cent increase in the core budget to help inflate operational costs.

Bolger said obtaining this additional funding will 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 its impact on workers, and we acknowledge that these challenges can impact the support provided to those who rely on our services.”

In the period 2023-2024, the government said it was investing $3.4 billion in development services, an increase of $841 million over the period 2018-2019.

She said she is also working to help the sector with recruitment and retention strategies.

Workers without contracts 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 expired.

She did not want to get into contract details, but said negotiations are going well and she is scheduled to meet with the union again later this month.

Local 3137 told CBC News that rising wages and employees being stuck at work are two major issues in the bargaining.

According to Brennan, the collective agreement only allows workers to collect overtime if they are put in more than 14 consecutive hours.

He said he hopes to secure a contract by the end of the month.

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