Celebrating Our Personal Support Workers

Jodi Delange

Jodi DelangeJodi is a personal support worker (PSW) at CBI Home Health in St. Catharines, Ont. Her caregiving instincts first showed at five years old, when she took care of her mother who wasn’t feeling well one morning.

“I made her orange juice and toast, fixed her a bowl of cereal and put a cloth on her head. It was then she told me I need to go into healthcare. She wasn’t surprised when I became a PSW,” says Jodi.

Now, Jodi often takes on the responsibilities of many other healthcare workers as a PSW. She describes her daily schedule, her responsibilities, and the expectations that come with her job.

“I primarily help the elderly and disabled people with their daily activities. I start my day at a retirement home, where I spend two hours getting my clients cleaned and dressed for the day, and getting them to breakfast,” says Jodi.

“Then, I go into homecare, where I spend an hour at a time at each of my client’s homes. I have a similar routine here, but I also give them medication, physiotherapy, and occupational and behavioural therapy, among other forms of care. I’m the ‘doctor’, ‘psychologist’, the best friend, the confidante, and even sometimes become like family for them.”

“We’re expected to do all of that alone. When you’re at a client’s home, you have to be whatever it is they need you to be, and you can’t call on anyone to help you.”

When it comes to making changes in the workplace, however, Jodi was able to confide in SEIU Healthcare to stand up to her employers about her goals for workers’ rights and client care:

“Every person I ever met at SEIU Healthcare has been supportive and has rallied behind me when I needed it,” says Jodi. “When I decided to bring the union into my company, it was a huge boost for my self-esteem. It’s nerve-wracking standing up to your manager, but I didn’t like the way the management staff was treating and training our immigrant workers. I also want my clients taken care of; it’s not just money for me. I don’t care that clients are a source of income – they’re human beings. I’m here to take care of human beings, and I want my employers to think of them as human beings and not as a paycheque.”

Morena Flores

Morena FloresMorena is a personal support worker (PSW) at CBI Home Health in St. Catharines, Ont. Originally from El Salvador, she worked as a paramedic in her teenage years and decided to make the big move to Canada with her family to work as a PSW despite many setbacks.

“When I came to Canada, I didn’t have anyone to guide me. I didn’t know English, so I couldn’t ask about college opportunities, and had to take up many odd jobs to support my family,” says Morena. I eventually made enough to go to school, and it was an empowering moment for me. I was finally able to do what I love, because I put in the effort all those years and made it happen.”

Morena found her passion for caregiving at a young age and believes that everyone deserves care no matter where they come from.

“PSWs know how to take care of clients, no matter if they’re young or old, and regardless of what background they come from. There is no discrimination — we must be able to help anyone who comes to us.”

Just like her beliefs on patient care, Morena also strives for equal rights in the workplace. She was one of the people who worked hard to bring SEIU Healthcare into her company, and as a union steward she continues advocating for her rights, even though some of her colleagues have their doubts about the union.

“I am very happy with SEIU Healthcare, but my company is definitely making it difficult for us right now. I want to be able to solve all our problems right away, but I know it’s going to take a while. Everyone is always coming to me with their issues, and my long-time clients are being taken away from me, so I’ve been in constant conflict with my manager. Nobody believes that a union can do anything, but I don’t want to throw away something I worked so hard for, no matter how tired I am of fighting.”

Vittoria Selepiuc

Vittoria SVittoria is a personal support worker (PSW) at ParaMed in Toronto. She has a family history of illnesses and knows what families go through emotionally with their sick loved ones, so being able to put herself in their shoes as a PSW means a lot to her.

“I am very empathetic toward my clients and their families because I know what it’s like to see people you love suffering all the time. When you’ve had clients for many years, you do get attached to them, even though this is a job. It’s important to treat your patients with the same respect and dignity you would a family member.”

The emotions can become difficult to handle, she says, especially when the nature of her work doesn’t give her time to mourn family losses.

“When it’s over, it still hits you the next morning – even for the next few months. You still want to grieve even though it’s not your family. But it’s just another case for your company, and you have no choice but to move on to the next client.”

She also feels frustrated by the way PSWs are viewed in the community, and wants the additional roles they take on to be acknowledged:

“PSWs, frankly, are not just PSWs. You get delegated the kind of tasks normally performed by nurses, physiotherapists, psychiatrists, dieticians, psychologists, occupational and behavioural therapists, and the list goes on.”

“It’s sad that PSWs aren’t recognized under any regulated division of the healthcare program. It’s one of the most important jobs in the world; we’re trying to make people happier, healthier, and more independent on an ongoing basis. This is a team, and everyone in it is important, so PSWs should be a part of it as well.”

Being a PSW is a constant learning process, and Vittoria offers this advice to those aspiring to get into the field:

“Whenever you get a new client, you must try to understand their needs and work out the best way to accommodate those needs. It’s important to do your research; talk to other PSWs who’ve worked on similar cases as well as the client’s family, because virtually no two cases will ever be the same. You’ll always be educating yourself on the job. It’s challenging, but if it puts a smile on your clients’ faces it’ll make you happy as well.”

Sandra Cordero

Sandra CorderoSandra is a Personal Support Worker (PSW) at ParaMed Home Health Care Toronto and a full-time Practical Nursing student. Originally from Colombia, she has been passionate about humanity and social justice since her youth, and at 18 years old she became the youngest leader in her healthcare union while working as a medical assistant.

“I was an active member who helped to write meeting minutes and promoted participation in rallies and assemblies. After that, I became a public leader in Bogota, and I lived in one of the city’s areas called Usme. This area had more than two million people living in precarious conditions, and public services such as hospitals, daycares and schools all suffered from poor management.”

It was then that Sandra and other members from her union called a major strike to negotiate improvements in the area with all the public service managers and the health minister. She was the General Secretary in the Usme Civil Movement from 1990 to 1993 and is proud of how much has changed since then.

“There are still leaders working in the community to this day, and I keep in touch with them from time to time. Hearing what they have to say makes me feel so accomplished after taking the initiative all those years ago.”

In 1993, Sandra began work at a communications company in Bogota, and was soon recognized for her innovative ideas and political experience. She was elected to an executive position in her union for a term of two years and was the first member in the union’s history to get elected in such a short time frame.

Sandra then became a human rights representative in the Colombian Labour Congress and the Communications Union in Bogota. This had implications for her safety, and she talks about how her unwavering focus towards human rights advocacy kept her from being afraid despite her position.

“In 2001, 184 of our leaders were assassinated by death squads; more than 1000 received death threats, over 300 were jailed, and thousands of others were fired for simply being activists or unionized workers. I was aware of my situation as a union leader, but I never felt fear. I was an unusual leader.”

“I was passionate about defending workers’ rights and public services as part of our public patrimony. The most important thing for me was working with the community to strengthen public services and strategic sectors like communications, and I never stopped believing in that.”

When Sandra was elected two years later as General Secretary in the Communications Union, however, the danger to her life and her family became clear. Her family needed a way out, and when they got the opportunity to move to Canada, it changed their lives forever.

“Due to my commitments to my community and the union workers, I was fired from my job, received death threats and was displaced from my home. I didn’t realize how serious this all was until the paramilitaries came to my house to kidnap us in 2002. I decided to have us relocate to another town for a few months, until the representatives from the Colombian Labour Congress told me that I must leave Colombia.”

“The Canadian Labour Congress sponsored me and my family to save our lives. I will always be thankful to my brothers in Colombia, and to my brothers in Canada who welcomed us here with open arms.”

Sandra hasn’t forgotten her roots, however, and contributes heavily to social justice efforts in both Colombia and Canada. This helped her learn the power of the international solidarity:

“Even though I began a new life in Canada, I nevertheless belong to both lands. I am still doing solidarity work for Colombia and have been helping with the organization of a new union at ParaMed as well. No matter which part of the planet it is, globalization is all around us. It’s so important to continue working for social justice and solidarity between the North and South, so that we see a world where everyone can live in peace.”

Vincent Chio

Vincent ChioVincent Chio is a Personal Support Worker (PSW) at ParaMed Home Health Care in Toronto. To him, the work he does is more important than what the job will bring him, and he feels happy when providing care to his clients.

“It’s not just about the income. It’s about the way you treat other people, how you take care of them, give them support, and help them achieve quality care. When I go to see my clients, I usually give them showers, talk to them, and prepare their meals. It’s always nice to help people, especially those who don’t have families to take care of them. There are many stresses in life and having someone care for you like that really means a lot.”

Unfortunately, there is currently no official regulation for PSWs, and because of this, PSWs do not receive the same benefits and compensation as other healthcare workers despite oftentimes performing the same duties as them. As election day approaches, Vincent hopes for change:

“When we take on work beyond our job description, we aren’t compensated for it and still get paid as PSWs. Our benefits are also reduced. The government doesn’t really know what PSWs are and what we do – they don’t know we exist. They don’t want clients to stay in hospitals and would rather they received treatment at home, but what they don’t realise is that without PSWs, there’s no one to care for them at home. Group homes can be a good alternative, but they aren’t always conducive to personal care, and PSWs know this.”

“It would be beneficial to the government to invest more in the frontline; in the long run they would save a lot of money on hospitals and other healthcare institutions. When people are in good shape - including our disabled clients - they’ll be able to work and pay taxes, so there would definitely be a big return on that investment.”

Communication is an integral part of change, and Vincent feels that there is a lack of it when it comes to understanding issues in the frontline:

“The problem is that instead of talking to us, the government invests in research that may very well be outdated. Nothing will come out of projects if they don’t communicate with the frontline. If we’re ever going to change what’s going on in our community, they need to see what’s happening here for themselves.”

Vincent is thankful for his union, SEIU Healthcare, which has helped to open up the dialogue and give workers the confidence to speak out against unacceptable practices:

“I feel really great about the amount of support we’ve received from SEIU Healthcare. Changes can’t happen abruptly anymore; workers need to know their rights and get a chance to speak before any decision is made. Before, you had to either accept the conditions or leave the company altogether, and it’s easy for employers to hire people who don’t know their rights – especially if they’re immigrants. Now is our chance to come together and start again.”

Shoshannah Bourgeois

shoshannahShoshannah Bourgeois is a personal support worker (PSW) at ParaMed Home Health Care London and a leader at her workplace. Working in home care, she strives to give her clients the quality of life they deserve by providing personal care and keeping families together during those emotional times.

“I care for my clients the same way I’ve been cared for by my own family. You work so hard to build your home and fill it with treasures. It’s important to keep in touch with the outside world, but to also have a familiar support system and things that trigger fond memories, especially if you have dementia. At home, you feel safer and you live longer.”

She also feels right at home with SEIU Healthcare, praising the union for its strong will to secure workers’ rights and for offering many opportunities for members to get involved.

“I don’t want to do anything without SEIU Healthcare by my side. It’s the best union out there for frontline healthcare workers. It’s not just about collecting dues; the union cares very much about its members, fighting for their rights to have a better work-life balance. Not only that, it also encourages us to strengthen our own voice through rallies, canvasses, and the Leadership Academy.”

Getting involved in the union comes highly recommended by Shoshannah, especially for immigrant workers who feel they don’t have a voice.

“It’s difficult for immigrants to leave their home countries and come here to find jobs. Even if they get work, they still need to know their rights. I’m strong, but I can only imagine what it feels like for someone who has concerns but doesn’t know how to express them. Whatever you do, your union has your back. Full-pension and benefit jobs don’t exist anymore, and we must protect them because workers are either getting laid off or receiving lower pay than they should for the work they do. I believe SEIU Healthcare will do that for us.”

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