Why support workers need better pay for the work they do

Since the pandemic was declared in March, there has been an increased emphasis on front-line workers and the role they play in contributing to the safety and well-being of our communities. 

Historically, many front-line workers have been underpaid for the critical work they perform.   

Direct support professionals — who support people with disabilities to live meaningful lives in the communities — are one such group that often goes unrecognized for the work they do. Their work is to aid a person with an intellectual disability in reaching his or her own goals.    

Supported individuals, who rely on support workers as their connection to the outside world, often consider them as family. Many who do not have family, often rely on their support worker as their best friend and mentor.   

As a society, we often ignore our most vulnerable in many discussions. People living with disabilities live disproportionately in poverty and sometimes have limited options. It is often the support worker who advocates for services for them.  

Winnipeg support worker Carlos Sosa assists persons living with intellectual disabilities: “It is often the support worker who advocates for services for them.” (Submitted by Carlos Sosa)

In my case, my responsibilities include helping individuals to connect with relevant community resources, assisting them with budgeting, food preparation and engaging them in the broader community.  

Governments need to prioritize the well-being and care of our most vulnerable population.– Carlos Sosa

For example, one of the individuals I work with did not even know how to use his apartment intercom system, to let people into his building. It was only when I started working with him that he was able to use the keypad on his iPhone to let people in.  

High turnover

This is just one of many examples of why a support worker is so critical in their efforts to support the inclusion of our most vulnerable into the broader community.    

But within the support worker sector, there is a high turnover rate. This is due, I believe, to the inadequate wages we’re often paid. Sometimes it’s close to minimum wage. As a result, many people do not see this as a viable long-term career path.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the province has provided two one-time payments to direct support professionals — one in the spring, and one in December. The most recent announcement was targeted to those who work in residential settings — not those in day programs and supported independent living.   

We have a situation where people in day programs are there because they qualify under “critical care” in this crisis, yet the people who are supporting them are not paid accordingly.  

Well-being and safety

Workers in the supported independent living program, such as myself, assist marginalized individuals to access banking, food preparation and cleaning — all of which are critical in ensuring the well-being and safety of our most vulnerable populations.  

One important piece of the inclusion puzzle is to have qualified, experienced people help with their daily lives. Not knowing if the person you are forming a bond with will be there for you in the future is hard on self-esteem and means there is little continuity of care. 

We pay decent living wages to people who drive trucks and fix your dishwasher. For people who care for our fellow human beings? Not so much.

As we move forward, all governments need to prioritize the well-being and care of our most vulnerable populations.  

Once the government begins to do work in this direction, that will start us on a path toward the full inclusion of everyone in society. 

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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