By Graeme Cheadle
Spring Magazine recently sat down with two support workers in Vancouver. In part 1 of this interview we discussed the inadequate degree of workplace safety. In light of announcements of workplace reforms and the provision of PPE, we discuss in this interview the changes on the ground and how much further there is to go.
I recently read a report that quoted provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry as saying that every care worker in BC would be hired full time and paid standardized wages for the next six months. Does this apply to you, and have you have you heard of this, or have you seen it happen?
CH: Not that I’m aware. The only thing I’m aware of is they are keeping people in one location and deploying people so those who are full time are getting full time hours, but I don’t know about what you’re talking about. That’d be nice.
NS: I think that’s more for residential care. They’re trying to maintain people’s hours because they’ve had a lot of programs close, like day programs, which is a big part of the services. They have all closed finally, so those people are being repositioned to residential locations. So they’re trying to keep people employed, but people who work on a casual basis or part-time, I don’t believe they’re trying to follow what they’re doing in residential care in terms of trying to make full-time positions with benefits necessarily, but there is extra work I right now, so that that may happen naturally for a lot of people. But I don’t believe that applies to us, what Bonnie Henry was talking about.
She also mentioned that there is a limit on working between different locations, so has that come into effect? You’re only supposed to work at one facility now?
CH: Yeah, but you can still work for different companies. So it’s not really airtight, but it is an improvement.
NS: They have made a big effort in CH’s larger agency to reposition people so that they’re only going to one location. In our smaller program we haven’t been given any directive that way. To be honest, I wanted to be able to depend on some of our casual workers who work at other locations, but many of them have told me they aren’t allowed, they’ve been disallowed by their primary companies to work for us.
It sounds like there wasn’t (or there still isn’t) enough safety equipment, but have there been any improvements in terms of things like masks and PPE and so on? Is it better than it was?
CH: I was away for a while. When I left there were no masks. There were no goggles being distributed. There were some there, but I was told that we had to wait on those until someone got sick…We’ve got plastic glasses that they’re calling goggles now. And like I said, we didn’t have masks until the past weekend. I in fact called my supervisor saying I had some masks and asked if he wanted to come and pick them up. He never responded to me. I assumed “Okay, well they must have masks.” I got there and they didn’t have masks until last weekend. I texted him, I don’t know, three weeks ago. They just don’t get it. And this my supervisor.
It’s dangerous for everybody. It’s crazy. So everybody’s ignorant, basically. They are not teaching people. They’re not disseminating information in a way that people who don’t read what they’re supposed to read, they don’t take in their information. They did training by cheating. My own supervisor told me he does that, as well. It’s crazy. They just are not getting the information out to these people in a way that they’re going to take it seriously. We’ve had not one staff meeting since all this has happened. Not one. It’s crazy. You know, we’re in a pandemic and they haven’t had an emergency meeting. They’re not getting the information to these people, and these people are not taking it seriously.
NS: Yes. It’s true that CH’s manager taught him how to get around actually having to learn the online training, and how to cheat. One thing I have done in CH’s company, which maybe speaks to how badly they want workers to show up more than are concerned for their safety, is they’re offering drives. This came about a week ago I’d say, for people who don’t want to take public transit to work, but they’re just in small cars. One person is going around driving everybody to their shifts.
CH: It’s almost counterproductive. It almost might be better on transit than doing that in a small confined space, for someone who might have COVID-19. It doesn’t make any sense.
NS: I mean the PPE at CH’s company came a week and a half after a support worker had already died in an emergency. And I believe that they just acquired that from the market. So in the case of my workplace, when you’re asking have I seen improvements, it’s been my job to try and acquire PPE from just the general market for my staff, so I gather more things every day. But in terms of there being a delivery through official channels like outside of the marketplace, I’m limited in the way that the public is in terms of what I can provide for my workers.
What’s the general feeling right now at work? Do you feel that the government is supporting you? Do you feel the public is supporting you?
NS: I feel we’re very off on our own. We just have to scramble to try and figure it out. For the most part I had to produce the training materials for my staff myself. The crown agency that funds us has information on their website for anybody who’s a service provider to look up, and I can borrow some resources from there. But the main thing is that they haven’t delivered any PPE to us, despite giving us a directive that we should be using it. That’s how I feel.
CH: I feel alone, and my heightened concern is that most people going in are afraid. The average support worker is someone who’s not going to, due to them being, say immigrants, they don’t have another vocational choice maybe, they’re going to feel disenfranchised. They’re going to feel powerless. They’re not going to say, “Hey, I won’t work.” That’s the dilemma I’m dealing with right now. So yeah, I feel very much on my own. I do not feel supported by my company, for all their lip service. I certainly don’t feel supported by the government. I don’t feel supported by the general populace. Pots and pans at 7:00 is all very well, but can you do something constructive to help us? There are no studies, and there are no stories in the media about our situation. Long term care homes are getting some traction right now, and well they should, but we’re practically in the same situation. It may be somewhat more limited, a little safer I guess.
NS: There are different challenges though, because of things like, for example right now in CH’s case, I don’t know if it’s a majority, but a lot of individuals are dependent on staff to access the community for transportation, or just for support in the community. With distancing measures (provided the staff follow them, which hasn’t happened a lot), those individuals are at least kept at home, but the clients that I support are more capable, more independent. So they are out in the community riding the rails and using transit because there are not as many people on it all day long. So that’s difficult because you can’t force someone who, in terms of the law, probably wouldn’t be considered capable of making that decision, but we have no control over what kinds of risks they might face during the day when we’re not there.
So really, in a group home situation probably the greatest risk to the clients is support workers bringing in the virus, whereas it’s the opposite for us. It’s more likely that my clients who have zero sense of hand hygiene or safe coughing or sneezing or anything like that are more likely to give it to us. And there’s no PPE for that. There just isn’t. In the province. It’s not necessarily that they’re not delivering it to us, but it’s extremely limited, the kind of protection that a mask can give you if it isn’t an N95, in terms of transmission from another person. Face shields are helpful. We haven’t gotten those. You can’t, in the market. We have homemade ones that we’ve been using, which are legal-sized sheet protectors under a headband kind of thing.
Given that you are in such a difficult position, is there any appeal you would like to make? What can people reading this do to pressure government for better funding? Is there something you would ask for from them?
NS: I would say, while this is possibly a very extreme measure, and historically I don’t know how big the state of emergency has to be before a province would do this kind of thing, but when I’m feeling fearful I wish that there would be provincially ordered-directives for industries to have to make the PPE that we need. During wartime they can force factories to refit so that they can produce what’s needed. That’s the only thing that could really help, because it’s just a shortage of PPE. We just don’t have it. It’s not necessarily that they don’t want to provide it to us, they just don’t have it. Unless we did have that, there’s always going to be risk in our jobs, and I think it’s heightened because of the unique needs of our clients.
CH: It would be nice to have some media coverage, that’s for sure, and I can’t emphasize enough that this population, because a lot of them are orphaned, and they were in institutions, and there is no family. There is no one pushing about this. They don’t have a voice, not a proper voice, and they’re not being looked after properly by the agency that’s being funded and paid to look after them and protect them. If a sickness comes into our group homes, it will take them all out. I’ve got no doubt. They have some sort of loose plan of “We’re going to isolate them in one section of the house, and have nurses show you how to use PPE,” but they share bathrooms. It’s a small house. I don’t think they have a clear plan of what they’re going to do when that happens. It’s not “if,” either. It’s “when” that happens.
NS: That’s a really good point, actually. Probably a more realistic thing that I’ve been hoping for is to politicize my coworkers a little bit more. Right now the directive from Community Living BC is if an individual gets COVID-19, they are supposed to isolate in their rooms as much as possible. Like CH said, bathrooms are shared, etc. Because of their disabilities, that would be an extremely difficult thing to do, because there just isn’t an understanding about the virus for most of the clients that we support. They’re not able to apply it to their own situation. A lot of people have sort of pacing behaviours, like I said, or touching everything in the house. So we all know as support workers that’s never going to happen, that someone’s going to be able to be isolated in their room, so then CLBC says, “Well, okay, if that’s not possible, then the sick person should be in the common areas only and everybody else should isolate in their rooms. And maybe you should have staff that only work with the sick ones in their rooms, and then other staff that work with the healthy ones.” And that’s also not going to happen. We can’t lock individuals in their rooms.
So a really important thing that I think we need and that I’ve seen that they are supposedly doing in the Downtown Eastside, is there needs to be a facility that our individuals can go to to isolate, like they have in the Downtown Eastside, supposedly for people living in SROs [single-room occupancy housing], or shelters, who aren’t able to isolate. If they test positive they can go there, and there are I think 60 beds. But they can be isolated from the other people who were sharing their space, and we definitely need that for this population, because that might be a place to concentrate PPE, if you had a smaller staff looking after people who were sick. Maybe the Health Authority would actually give proper PPE to those workers supporting them there, and it’s not going to just go all around a group home, infecting everybody who works there and lives there. That is the only solution I can really think of. There isn’t a plan for that, it’s just isolating the people in the home somehow.
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