‘Tipping point’: Lethbridge disability workers speak out on staffing trouble

Heather Caldwell, who works at the Southern Alberta Community Living Association (SACLA), stands in front of a wall filled with sticky notes. The notes represent shifts the organization still needs to fill in December and January. Eloise Therien / Global News

Workers in the community disability services sector in Alberta say staffing issues are coming to a head, mainly due to low pay.

“Workers are feeling that impact. They haven’t seen that wage increase in eight years,” said Dale Cena with the Alberta Disability Awareness in Action (ADAIA) group.

“The average wage for a disability service worker is $18.76 an hour — that’s not even a living wage.”

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In Lethbridge, several organizations say burnout, turnover and worry are at an all-time high as inflation continues to take its toll on many Canadians.

Heather Lyons has been in the industry for around 20 years, working with the Ability Resource Association for the last 16.

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“There have always been challenges with it, but now (it’s) literally at that crisis level,” she said.

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Generally, Lyons said education for the industry is a two-year diploma with subsequent on-the-job training, but long-term workers are becoming few and far between.

“People are going to school for the field and then they’re quickly leaving the field because they’re just not getting paid that living wage,” she said.

“When I first started in the field, we’d post a position and we’d be turning away applicants. Now we’re getting two or three applicants.”

Lillian Westling and her son Bill Blair know both sides of the impact first-hand. Westling began working in the sector before her son was born, and returned some years later.

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She explained staff working to support Bill, who has Down Syndrome, have often been pulled to service patients who can’t be on their own as he can.

“If staff is needed somewhere else, the agency I pay to provide me with staff pulls his staff to work with somebody who’s in more dire need, and I understand this because I work in the field,” Westling explained.

However, she said this has taken away from the quality of support Bill is receiving, and opportunities to gain employment.

“I would like to see the staff be respected, that they are a vital part of even an independent person like Bill’s life,” Westling said.

“They’re losing their loved one, they’re losing their favourite staff,” Cena added. “We’re seeing those in care now isolating and not trusting the individual, because there’s new faces coming in all the time.”

Click to play video: 'International Day of Persons with Disabilities'
International Day of Persons with Disabilities

In a statement from Alberta’s Minister for Seniors, Community and Social Services Jeremy Nixon, he explained Premier Danielle Smith has directed him to “work with the social services sector to address work force challenges… including assessment and actions with respect to social sector worker wages.”

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Nixon said he is proud to represent the government through this process.

“I continue to meet with organizations and individuals from the disability sector to hear their concerns and make sure they know their provincial government is listening,” Nixon said.

“It is important that we maintain stable access to support services, to ensure vulnerable individuals are receiving the care they need. I recognize the urgency of these issues, which is why I look forward to finding quick solutions to ensure Alberta’s disability sector is supported in the incredible work they do.”

ADAIA started a petition to support community disability workers, which had more than 13,300 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

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