Not Just a PSW
The best way to understand what personal support workers are going through? By talking to them—and really listening to their concerns
By Lucy Brinkman, Intern
There’s a joke that has stayed with me for the better part of the last year. The setup was a conversation between two employers, and one was sharing that they had just given their workers a raise during the pandemic.
The second employer was incredulous. “A raise?” he said. “Don't you know you can just go on your porch and bang your pots and pans for them?”
Like many things from this past year, the punchline now feels tired. Yet it leaves questions ringing in my mind.
How can we ever understand the sacrifices that essential workers, and specifically workers in long term care, have made during the past year and a half? And if we do understand their sacrifices, what does it look like to meaningfully recognize and support them?
In searching for the answer, I had the privilege of speaking with two women who served on the front lines of the pandemic, Jill and Melissa. Both are personal support workers (PSWs) at long term care homes in Ontario’s Niagara region.
I wanted to understand what it was really like working in long term care during the pandemic in what was one of the most dangerous workplaces. What was the hardest part, and what was the most hopeful? When did they feel recognized, and when did they feel ignored? What are their hopes for the future of the long term care sector?
Jill and Melissa both went into healthcare because of a desire to care for others. They had both spent time caring for loved ones, so it was a natural step to move into this career. Both women love their jobs and spoke about how fulfilling it was to do something good.
This love for their jobs was tested in 2020 when long term care homes across the province became the sites of devastating outbreaks and strict lockdowns.
Melissa talked about how in the beginning staffing levels dropped like crazy, and residents were isolated in their rooms. Stress at work was at an all-time high. There were days when she and another coworker had to encourage each other to show up again the next day.
Jill felt the pressure of the pandemic, too. She remembers the weight of being the only person the residents would see each day, and how they didn’t understand all the changes, like why workers were wearing PPE.
She recalls that people who knew where she worked “didn’t want to bother” with her because of the risks associated with the highly transmissible, little understood disease. Emotions were high as Jill explained that many residents died without seeing their families, that she was often the last one sitting with them as they passed—and that she was the one who zipped up the body bag.
Still, even after what may have been the hardest year of their lives, both women still love their jobs. And despite what they have experienced, they are optimistic about the future.
“I hope that this helps change the whole structure of long term care,” Melissa said. “We are an important part of the system. We are proud of our role, especially now that people know what it means to be a PSW.”
Jill also reflected that being appreciated for her work is important to her.
“When someone says that you’re just a PSW, it makes me so angry,” she said. “I’m not ‘only’ a PSW. I’m the one who bathes them, I'm the one who feeds them, I’m the one who helps clothe them, I’m the one who puts them to bed, I'm the one who helps put them on the toilet—I’m the one that helps them be them.”
Beyond this recognition, they both see other glimpses of hope for the future.
Jill has two daughters who have entered the healthcare field, and she’s proud to have passed on the passion for caretaking to her kids. Both Jill and Melissa appreciated the three-dollar hourly raise provided by the Ontario government and hope the increase is made permanent.
Working in long term care is hard, and it was made even harder during the pandemic. We need to remember the sacrifices that were and continue to be made. Workers need to be recognized, not just by banging pots and pans, but through meaningful, thoughtful, and powerful action.
I hope I continue to hear about the real and vulnerable experiences that PSWs and others like them went through during COVID and that by sharing these experiences we begin to see different, more hopeful stories emerge.