By Alex Medley
Maria is a social worker at a drop-in centre for homeless women, located in an Ontario city. Women who use the shelter are typically experiencing a combination of homelessness, addiction and mental health issues. It is Maria’s job to provide these women with access to basic services and a safe place to stay. Maria spoke with Spring Magazine about how her working conditions have changed since the pandemic. In particular, Maria describes how a lack of resources, support, and concern from management are making her fear for her own safety and that of the women who use the service.
Can you describe how your working conditions have changed since the pandemic?
Last week, we began working longer hours and fewer shifts to get our full-time hours. We have all-new procedures for getting clients into the space. At first, they were not providing us with proper personal protective equipment. I had to bring my own face mask from home. They eventually stocked up on those, as well as hand sanitizer. Also, we have set up an isolation site for women who are experiencing symptoms, waiting to be tested, or are waiting to hear the results of their test.
How closely do you interact with those who are showing symptoms, or suspected to have the virus?
We are taking temperatures and monitoring for health-identified needs. I have not been trained for that. I’m not a registered nurse or a registered practical nurse. I understand the community is in crisis and obviously my passion is working with marginalized and vulnerable women. However, I don’t feel like we are being provided with the appropriate measures, especially through the city. We need more funding for things like gloves, masks, all this equipment because we are now running low on all of these.
How did your management provide you with training about the virus, such as what symptoms to look for in clients and even yourselves?
Initially, that information was not provided to us. We only learned well into the second week of the crisis, when management provided us with a CDC sheet on how to identify a fever and other symptoms. I feel like management’s attitude has been very relaxed and they aren’t taking this seriously, which is an issue since we are working with incredibly vulnerable populations, who are taking public transit daily.
Where are you getting your information about the virus from?
Mostly through speaking with other social workers in a Facebook group for community service workers located throughout the city.
Do you have paid sick days, or are they being offered? What is the process you are expected to follow if you begin feeling sick?
One of the things that is driving me nuts about this is that if we go off to self-isolate or self-quarantine, we are supposed to utilize all of our paid sick days, we have about two or three. If you have used all your sick days, you are then expected to use all of your vacation time. If you don’t have any vacation time left, you are expected to reach into your vacation time for next year.
How do your colleagues feel about this?
Most of my colleagues are mothers with young children and are calling out sick if they feel like they are not needed in the space. We all feel like we are not being provided with the ability to leave work if we feel sick. The general assumption is if you have a cough, it is from a pre-existing condition. If you are feeling ill, you must continue working until it is severe enough that you must leave.
One of my coworkers left today out of fear after a woman came in presenting with a fever. I had tried to call Public Health so they could come in and test her. Afterwards, another woman came in presenting with a fever as well. No management are on right now, so I was calling my supervisor asking for help. Both women were swabbed – not by me – but now they’re in the isolation area and I’m right there with them because I’m already exposed anyways! We haven’t let any new women in the space, but I don’t have the ability to isolate any of the women who are already here, and who may have been in the same space as the women who could potentially have the virus.
How do you feel about having to work during this crisis?
I am terrified that I am going to get this illness either from a colleague or a client, and then transfer it to somebody who is already vulnerable, whether it’s a client, a family member or somebody else in the community. I’m also scared to go home because I don’t want my partner to get sick. I don’t think it’s fair that he has to have this risk because of the job I’m doing as an essential service worker at an organization that doesn’t give a shit about me. I’m doing my best to limit all interactions and take all the necessary precautions both when I’m at work and when I’m at home. Management won’t tell us whether we should self-isolate. Even if there was a positive case, I don’t trust them to tell us about it. There are major discrepancies in the information we are receiving.
Given the fact that you are working during this global lethal pandemic, what do you think this says about your job?
They’re telling me that I am essential, but they’re not paying me like I’m essential. They’re also not making me feel like my work is valuable and that I am safe here. However, I respect and acknowledge the fact that those who are attending our space have literally nowhere else to go in the city because everything is shut down: libraries, restaurants, Tim Hortons, basically anywhere they could go to use the bathroom or find a meal.
Anything you want to add?
I want to tell all frontline workers out there to make sure that they are staying safe and protecting themselves and their families. I also want to acknowledge that what we are doing is important and powerful, but we need to take care of ourselves as well.
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