In Noelle Allen’s article “How to say sorry and mean it”, she raises the issue of Bill 124 still being law. She aptly points to the wage suppression bill that holds the nursing profession and Ontario teachers to a 1% wage increase during the highest inflation we’ve ever seen, but what many fail to realize is that our social service organizations are also being held hostage by this public sector wage restraint. This bill adversely affects shelter workers who provide front line services to the most marginalized populations in our Province.
The opioid crisis, which was front and center prior to Covid has continued to rage and now our shelter workers are not only called upon to work in over-capacity shelters, experiencing multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 but are also responding to residents experiencing severe mental health crisis and overdoses. During the past two years, as the population of unhoused individuals grows, shelter workers have had to adapt their skills, often performing the work of EMS – administering naloxone and performing CPR on unresponsive residents, working with people in extreme mental health crisis which often manifests into violence. Shelters were designed to assist unhoused individuals to find their way out of homelessness through housing and supports, but the pandemic and the opioid crisis have made it difficult to maintain that focus.
Emergency Shelters, Violence against Women Shelters, food banks and social services in general are experiencing staffing shortages that are unprecedented in my 25 years in the field. The work in shelters is highly complex and incredibly demanding. How does a young worker “un-see” the violence and trauma they are experiencing in the workplace: the overdose death of a resident whom they were too late to save? The physical violence and emotional abuse that women experience while living unhoused, hungry children seeking meals at the doors of the food bank; the mental and emotional collapse of an individual experiencing a psychosis without health supports or turning someone away when there are no available spaces in the system? These are all experiences of vicarious trauma that are affecting and burning out our staff every day. Similar to the experience of our healthcare workers, it’s difficult to come to work day after day during a pandemic knowing that you are vulnerable to the virus because of the nature of the work you do and without hope of keeping up with the rising cost of living. This is the third time in my career that social services has experienced a wage freeze or restraint implemented by the Provincial Government. It is impossible for social services to recover or to compete with private sector funding when we are constrained over years from providing equitable wage increases. Social services have been underfunded for years and Bill 124 puts a further strain on our ability to recruit and retain staff. The wages paid to front line workers are grossly inadequate given the essential and demanding work they do.
Although Public Health classifies Emergency Shelter services in the “Highest Risk” category along with hospital workers and Long-Term Care facilities, we are denied the ability to compensate our staff fairly. We are losing our shelter workers, in an exodus, just as we are losing our health care workers and teachers. This is another crisis in the making. Shelter workers and those working in the social services sector are among the unsung heroes of this Pandemic and have not been recognized as such. We owe them recognition and thanks, and certainly, we need to speak up and support all of our essential workers, and kill Bill 124.
Executive Director, Mission Services of Hamilton
OP-ED published in The Hamilton Spectator January 22, 2022 as “Ontario’s Bill 124 puts unnecessary strain on chronically underfunded social service workers”