Seeking Equality

Recognizing the value of Social Service Workers that care for BC’s most vulnerable

By Tara Hogue Harris

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Nicki Gabriel loves going to work. As a community support worker (CSW), she considers the people she supports to be like family. She loves her upbeat and knowledgeable coworkers, and feels pride in the relationships she’s built with the people with disabilities at the Namaste Transition to Community Society. As a former child in care herself, she is proud to now offer care to vulnerable people. The only missing piece?

 

“It would be nice if we got a bit more recognition,” Nicki says. “If we were valued for everything we do.”

 

What she and other community support workers do can’t be easily summarized. It includes a long list of responsibilities that add up to broad physical, emotional and social support to people with intellectual disabilities. This means working with coworkers to plan and facilitate community-based activities; safely administering medications; being aware of people’s anxiety and supporting them during difficult times; helping with healthy food choices and safe mealtimes; communicating with families; accompanying people to medical appointments, and much more.

“It’s full person care,” says Nicki. She doesn’t doubt the importance of her work for a minute. She sees the difference it makes to her clients, many of whom came to Namaste because they were not doing well in previous placements. The team at Namaste works hard to tailor programs that fit each person, figuring out motivations and goals that fit each individual and setting them up for success. It’s a person-centred approach.

“Parents [and families] are so grateful. They see the value,” Nicki says.

 

Value can be measured in family gratitude, employee satisfaction, and success stories like a client graduating to one-on-one care after previously needing three support workers.

“No one is in this job for the money,” Nicki says firmly. “But some recognition of all we do would be nice.”

 

**

 

Equal Pay BC thinks so too. This coalition of 26 social services agencies would like that recognition to take the form of fairer wages. These organizations have joined together to speak up for the over 17,000  non-unionized BC workers like Nicki who work every day to provide life-changing supports for people with disabilities. With current government policy and funding that means lower wages than their union counterparts – for the same work.

Nicole Baker is the quality assurance officer at Namaste Transition to Community Society.

 

“Many of our staff members find that they have to leave working in the community social services sector because the cost of living in the cities that they live in is just too high for the wage that they are making.”

 

“An equal wage – a livable wage – would show value to our staff members in ways that we cannot.”

 

Nicole notes that the people they support have sometimes grown up in institutions. If a long-time worker is forced to leave due to low wages, there can be very disruptive for a person with disabilities.

 

“What’s lost is the knowledge of who this person is and what their experiences in their life have been.

This is a great loss to the individual if a staff member has to leave.”

 

Pay for community support workers is determined by formulas set by the BC provincial government. Government policy provides less funding for non-union workers doing the same work as their union coworkers. Community support workers who are in a union have seen sizeable raises in their government-funded wage, while non-union workers have been given much smaller increases. The gap ranges from position to position, but in some roles a non-union worker makes 15% less.

 

What does this inequity mean? For CSWs and their employers, this imbalance can lead to retention issues, as CSWs may need to work multiple jobs or change employers (or careers) in search of a living wage. This can lead to disruptions in care and quality of care, short staffing, and more burnout industry-wide.

 

“It’s not an easy job and not everybody can do it,” Nicole says. “It doesn’t make sense to me that a government … that is trying to say it supports all people, specifically people of colour and women, won’t support equal wages in a sector that’s already struggling to recruit and retain staff members.”

 

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Nicki’s path into community support work has its roots in her childhood as a former child in care. She was in seven foster homes before she turned two, then lived until she was 13 with one family. Those foster parents raised Nicki with their four biological children, and cared for infants who needed temporary care before going to permanent homes. Her foster mom was also a constant support for family members with serious health concerns.

“I always had an example of care around me,” Nicki remembers.

 

A misstep in Nicki’s early teens led to mandated community service at a centre for children with disabilities. She was terrified.

 

“But I fell in love with those kids,” she says, shaking her head at the memory; more than 40 years later, she clearly recalls names and stories about the children she worked with.

Nicki spent her teens in and out of group homes and became a mother herself in her late teens. She spent a few years feeling she didn’t have the skills for a career she could be proud of. While she had always dreamed of being a nurse – “I love hospitals, the smell of them, and the busyness” – the math required was a barrier. It was a friend’s suggestion to find a job find a job in a similar sector, one that built on Nicki’s strengths of caring and compassion for people of all abilities, that led her to Camosun College. She graduated from the Community Support Worker program with high grades and found her place in the world.

 

Along with training in personal care, nutrition, bathing, safety and much more, “we learned how to talk to clients respectfully, in an age-appropriate way.” Nicki has built on this education with 24 years of on- the-job learning, from both coworkers and clients.

 

One measure of how Nicki feels about her job is that she worries it looks like too much fun.

 

“We get to share experiences like going to the park, joking around and making people laugh. We get to have a good time.”

 

Nicki loves music and has built bonds with clients by playing guitar and teaching them songs. She and her co-workers eat lunch with their clients daily, and sometimes open their homes to offer weekend respite to families. One of Nicki’s clients shares a birthday – same day, same year – with Nicki’s daughter, so she brought him home for a homemade cake and a celebration with her family.

 

“It’s not just fun, though,” she reminds herself. “You have to be on all the time. There’s no downtime.”

 

This work requires patience, diplomacy, compassion and quick thinking. Nicki and her fellow CSWs have to be flexible and adaptable to find what works for the people in their care. They face physical risks, as people sometimes express frustration with aggression. A typical day might include blood or other bodily fluids. Medical staff often rely on CSWs to provide support and be liaisons during medical treatment, including long days at the bedside during hospital stays.

 

It’s all part of the job – whether you’re in a union or not.

 

**

 

Nicki is nearing 25 years in the industry, and at times, she does feel undervalued. The growing difference in pay between union and non-union workers stings. The cost of living in BC doesn’t change based on union membership.

 

When Nicki is asked about her hopes for the future of her profession, her thoughts don’t go to wages. She talks about how she’d like everyone to recognize that all people have worth.

 

“Wouldn’t it be good to go into elementary schools and teach about people with disabilities? How to be respectful and loving to everyone, however they look or act. Everyone has needs and everyone has value.”

 

For now, Nicki is hoping to hear that her work is also important and appreciated. Equal Pay BC is calling on

the BC government to offer equal pay for equal work. Their case is scheduled to go before BC’s Labour Relations Board on September 20th, and their hope is that the government will demonstrate that it truly is worker-friendly, and ensure equal pay for all.

 

“It’s not an easy job sometimes,” Nicki says. “We do so much. Equal pay would mean that people recognize that I work just as hard as anybody else.”