Showing Justin Trudeau hands-on personal support work

On June 19, SEIU Healthcare invited Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, and Thomas Mulcair to walk a day in a homecare worker’s shoes. Justin Trudeau was the first to accept the offer and he spent a day with Emily, a Toronto personal support worker who wanted to show him what her job is all about. Watch the result below.

Emily and Justin visited Antonietta, an 81-year-old Italian woman who lives alone. Without Emily, she wouldn’t be able to take good enough physical care of herself to continue safely living on her own.

Framed pictures of her family back home and here in Canada are laid out carefully across the fireplace mantel in her living room. “She has a supportive family,” says Emily. “Everyone does their part. Some clients have no one or no one to help.”

Emily is caring, funny, busy, and extremely hard-working. Like many PSWs, she works two jobs to be able to earn enough each month. She starts her personal support work in the early morning, and then at night, she helps her parents with cleaning contracts.

Her parents are seniors but can’t retire yet from their cleaning business. This is something that 30-year-old Emily is concerned about for herself. Most workers in the homecare field don’t have retirement security.

“The families are so grateful, they tell me ‘Emily, don’t leave!’” she laughs. In the video, she explains further, saying “I really do care for people, but I have to look after myself as well. We need a little bit of help and support and some kind of retirement security with some kind of pension. We’re humans too.”

Emily was happy to give Justin Trudeau an idea of what the life of PSWs is really like. Moved by the experience, he called PSWs “an essential part of our healthcare system but also communities.”

By 2036, nearly 1 in 4 Canadians will be a senior, and the need for homecare is only growing. Two million Canadians currently get care, and 500,000 have unmet needs. These are people like Antonietta; our family members, our friends, ourselves.


Behind the Scenes: PSW Day at Queen’s Park

SEIU Healthcare’s PSWs are quite well-known at Queen’s Park in Toronto. Invited on behalf of the Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, Dr. Eric Hoskins, I followed five Personal Support Workers as they spent the morning of May 14th exploring one of Ontario’s most historic government buildings.

Seated in the Speaker’s Gallery upon arrival, Ghiti Iravani, Hazel John, Theresa Matteer, Penney Murphy, and Theresa Thomas represented Personal Support Workers in Community Care, Long-Term Care and Homecare across the province. Later, they stood and received a standing ovation from all three parties of the Legislative Assembly.

“It was nice that we were recognized by Eric Hoskins,” said Long-Term Care PSW Hazel John from Tendercare Nursing Home. “It made us feel special as proud SEIU PSWs.”

The SEIU Healthcare PSWs were also greeted by a familiar face while seated in the Speaker’s Gallery. Associate Minister of Finance (Ontario Pension Plan) Mitzie Hunter left her seat to pop by for a warm greeting, welcoming all that were in attendance at Queen’s Park.

“I saw some old friends sitting over here so I had to come by and say hello,” said Hunter, who participated in SEIU Healthcare’s celebration of Black History Month last February.

Mitize Hunter and Eric Hoskins both stopped to chat and take a few photos with our Personal Support Workers once there was a break in Question Period.

“We’ve got to make sure that PSWs are treated with respect and dignity and that your salary levels reflect as well the important work that you do,” said Hoskins.

Our Personal Support Workers were then given a tour of the historic structure, stopping to view the various displays, one of which showcased the historic nursing uniforms from the 1930s, showing how far we’ve come from traditional nursing attire and image.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to take part in today’s experience,” said Theresa Matteer, PSW at Fairview Nursing Home. “There’s no question that they [the MPPs] understand the value that PSWs bring to Ontario’s healthcare system across all fields, and if they don’t know we’ll enlighten them.”

How grandma Kay got homecare

Working at a homecare union is personal for me. My grandmother, Catherine, or Kay for short, is a homecare client in Grey County.

The recent StatsCan report about people with unmet needs in homecare (there are more than 790,000 of them across the country!) got me thinking about how she got her service.

I asked her if she is happy with her homecare service. She said yes. I asked her if it was easy for her to get it in the first place. She said yes. She is fortunate to not be among the over ¾ of a million Canadians who need more homecare (some don’t receive any at all).

So here’s how it happened: She had been living alone for less than a year (her 50-plus year partner, my grandfather Herb, died in 2012) when she passed out at home after a long day trip on a bus with other seniors. She had to knock the phone off the kitchen counter from the ground where she fell to call for help.

Ending up in the hospital for over for over six weeks, Kay was physically weakened by the time she was well enough to leave. Before this all happened, she did all housework and personal care herself. “Grandpa did stuff too,” she says. “Lifting things and vaccuming.”

CCAC staff came to visit Kay while she was in hospital. “My doctor insisted I have somebody.” They set her up with seven straight days of homecare when she returned home from hospital, followed by two homecare visits a week after that.

These days, her female PSW gives Kay a shower, but she won’t let her male PSW do that. For Kay, one shower a week is enough. “I can give myself a sponge bath the rest of the time, and the bathroom is big enough for the walker.” She can manage mostly on her own.

Kay is pleased with her PSWs. “They always ask me how I am and they always call when they’re on their way. If I’m not here or forget to get in touch, they call and report that I wasn’t there.”

It becomes apparent while speaking to my grandma about her daily life that she has lots of contact with the outside world. “I go to the seniors’ lunch the second Tuesday of the month, and the seniors’ supper, and I go out and play cards, I go for drives. Sometimes I drive, sometimes they drive…I’ve lived here for so long, I have friends that come in, stay and have coffee.”

The system has worked well for Kay, with her doctor getting her homecare set up. She is lucky, saying “I have family that call to see how I am,” and adding as a nod to me, her interviewer, “even the grandkids call and see how I am.”

For Kay, living at home is better than living in a nursing home. “I’m sure gonna stay here as long as I can.”

Unfortunately, many people in Canada are socially isolated and have more complicated personal support needs, so the homecare system is not working for everyone. I’ll end this with a short letter from a member of ours:

“I am a homecare worker (PSW) in Brampton and unfortunately I have to agree [with the Toronto Star] that ‘in short, the existing system is chaotic, inadequate, unfair, inequitable and sorely in need of reform.’ Many clients should be getting more hours of personal care but they’re not. The majority of people only get two visits per week, and that means two showers. Through the Sweet $16 campaign we have been fighting to improve the system. We need to keep more young people in the homecare sector. After 11 years I make $15.23/hour and although PSWs look after sick people, we don’t get any sick days ourselves. I hope to see things change.”


Dinner conversations & debunking myths

I had dinner with an old friend the other night. She invited me over for a home cooked meal and even baked me a cake. Since I’ve been on the road a lot lately with work I figured that it was great way to enjoy a home cooked meal and catch up with a friend who I’ve known for years. I was pretty excited for it too. We’ve always gotten along pretty well but never really crossed that line of leaving the “friend zone.”

On paper it seemed like it was going to be a great night, but it all seemed to take a turn for the worse once she asked a very common question: “How’s work?”

Work was busy. At the time I had just wrapped up a video shoot in Hamilton with two lovely personal support workers, Carmen and Rachel. The focus of the video was to shed some light some real life issues facing these two PSWs; this boiled down to the issue of pensions. I described the process of coming up with the concept of the video, showing the contrast between these two very different women in two very different stages in their lives. An older, more established woman whose children have left the nest to raise children of their own, versus a young woman about to have her first child while still living under the roof of her parents’ home. The contrasts were many between the two PSWs, but the love for their profession and clients was similar.

The shoot was a lot of work, but rewarding and inspiring. I got to work with some really cool people whom I respect professionally. Carmen and Rachel did an excellent job sharing some of their personal stories, giving some much needed insight into some of the challenges of being a personal support worker. This wasn’t my first time working with Carmen and Rachel; they both have both played a key role in educating and informing the public of the value of Personal Support Workers. In fact, both of them have sat and discussed the future of the profession with Premier Kathleen Wynne and deputy Premier Deb Matthews.

My date had seen the Justice 4 PSWs campaign that SEIU had launched, on her commute to work; she also made mention before that she read this blog, and has kept up to date of all the political happenings within the healthcare industry. She’s always been an outspoken person and I admire that quality greatly, but having just told her about work, she then felt the need to express her thoughts on PSWs.

“I don’t understand why they’re getting so much attention; they’re not even qualified to do much.”

My heart sank, I tried not to react too harshly so I took a moment and chose my words. Having worked so closely to many personal support workers within the past year, I thought of how they would react to such a harsh statement. I knew of the hardships that they had to endure during their strike, not being fairly compensated for the work that they do. Though they may not be ‘qualified to do much’, they certainly are expected to go above and beyond their call of duty- administering medicine, cleaning, caring, soothing, chatting, reassuring, befriending, and the list goes on. I thought of the issues of verbal and physical abuse that many of them had to endure in order to make an honest wage for their families.  My date was a nurse, so I would have hoped that she would understand some of the hardships faced by frontline healthcare staff; clearly she did not.

“The work they do is highly skilled, but the care they provide is priceless. Let’s hope you never need the help of a PSWs, because that PSW might be the last person you see before you die,” was my immediate response.

We chatted some more about the issue, but I knew that my mind that I had checked out from the date. My appetite was gone, even the beautiful cake looked less appealing after her comments. I thanked her for the lovely meal and made my way to the exit. The evening reminded me that though PSWs are continuing to educate the public and beat stigma’s, there is still work to be done.


The making of “Below the Line: Walking a day in a PSW’s shoes”

Cidalia is a 52-year-old SEIU Healthcare member from Cambridge and appears in a video we produced to show people just how hard it is to get by on a $1,500/month salary. During an election period, it’s easy for politicians and activists alike to keep repeating the mantra of “frontline workers” and “poverty-level wages”, without knowing what it actually means to fall behind on bills while working hard all day to keep people well and functioning at home.

So we decided to produce a video that would have an emotional impact, showing Cidalia’s day from her own point of view, hoping that it will drive home reality for people. Homecare and community care PSWs in Ontario were promised a raise of $4/hour over the next few years. They deserve a “Sweet $16,” but if Hudak is elected, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

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Shoot day wasn’t easy. We were set up in Cidalia’s home, in her space on her day off. We were fortunate that she volunteered her time for the campaign. She was in good spirits all day. But the interview portion was difficult emotionally. It was hard for her to talk about her financial worries. And thousands of workers (there are over 30,000 of these homecare and community care PSWs in Ontario) are in the same boat.

The idea for this video series originally came from a project by our SEIU sisters and brothers in the states, who even did a “walk-a-day” with then-Senator Obama. Here in Canada, SEIU Healthcare first did a “walk-a-day” with our member Juliette and Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews. Matthews has since shown the video several times in public, including at the historic homecare raise announcement on April 29, 2014. Seeing what PSWs do day in and day out—that experience really seemed to stick with her.

Over the next several months, we hope to share more “walk-a-day” videos with you to show homecare workers’ real stories and let people know about the four concrete things we need to do to fix the homecare system.