Opinion: Lack of protection for personal support workers emblematic of their treatment by the system

By Andrew Pinto (contributors: Pinky Hapsari and Debra Slater)

You’ve likely noticed many grocery workers now wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves and face masks, and have hand sanitizer within reach. It’s comforting to know stores have taken precautions for everyone’s safety.

Now imagine you are in a long-term care facility or require home care, and the workers do not have access to adequate PPE. This is the reality for many of the estimated 100,000 personal support workers (PSWs) in Ontario.

PSWs are a critical part of the health system. They often criss-cross a region to care for the ill and elderly, assisting with key activities important for our health: washing, dressing, eating, and taking medication. They also work extensively in long-term care and other health facilities, in close contact with people at high risk from COVID-19. Because of their efforts, hospitals are able to discharge patients to the community, freeing up acute care beds for others.

However, PSWs are chronically undervalued as front-line health workers. They often cope with precarious and dangerous work conditions. Many PSWs receive schedules with little notice, receive inadequate hours, and struggle to make ends meet given their low pay. We have been engaged in a community-based participatory research project to examine the working conditions of PSWs and the impact on their health. Last week, when we met (virtually), a dozen PSWs shared their mounting frustration and fear around their inadequate protection against COVID-19.

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