Worried Sick About Work

With the rise of part-time and temp work, how exactly are people expected to make ends meet.

Words by Jennifer Hollett, Photography by Nick Kozak

Personal support worker Doreen walks from her home to a streetcar stop, to catch a ride to work.

Toronto, Canada — You’ve seen her before, but likely don’t remember. 
 
When my grandmother had dementia and was unlocking the double locks to wander the neighbourhood, we had to put her in a nursing home. She was there, taking care of my granny, and many parents and grandparents. She’s also in the community, working with kids and adults with cerebral palsy or on the autistic spectrum. She is caring for those we care the most about, doing the things we can’t or won’t do. This is important work, if not God’s work we say. And it’s usually a she. And she is usually a woman of colour.

But do you know her name? Or her story? Or what the work really involves?

Acsana and I meet up at a McDonald’s. It’s hard to find a time to meet, because she’s always working. If she’s not working, she’s waiting on call, waiting for work.

“Within 24 hours, the temp agency can call you at any time … 2:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the morning. ‘We need a shift covered, 5:00, can you be there?’”

Acsana is a support worker, who works in a group home in a residential set up, with individual youth with autism and delayed development, or down syndrome. Most of her clients lack verbal skills, so a big part of the job is “prompting” them to identify (and then meeting) their needs. She depends on a temp agency, and has no schedule. This work starts at minimum wage and goes little beyond, no benefits, no sick days. “If you say no, that means your name goes at the bottom. You don’t know when would be the next call.”

Support worker Acsana walks with a 14 year-old client with developmental challenges, from a pizza shop after lunch in North Toronto.

“What it takes away from you is you don’t have any fixed schedule, you can be on call for any moment, and so you can not have your personal life. You take care of other people’s individual son or daughter but you cannot take care of your own family how you want to. At least spend one day.”

Doreen tells me a similar story. We meet at her place. At quick glance, a nice central apartment in uptown Toronto. It’s social housing, which sometimes comes with social issues. Doreen shakes her head explaining that she had to get a restraining order against her neighbour who was harassing her. Doreen is a personal support worker, also on call, but she works with older clients.

“You have to do personal care, you have to shower, you have to toilet some of them,” she tells me. “You have to make the bed, you have to clean, those are some of the chores that you have to do. You probably have to make meals, prepare meals, or warm up meals. It all depends on the client.” Plus chatting and filing a daily report she adds.

Doreen makes the bed where she cares for a client with Parkinson’s Disease.

The shifts are grueling. After meeting with me she’s off to stay with a client for three full days, for $200. This is something she arranged via a friend. “No matter what job I do, I was still always doing part time. It’s challenging at times, but I like to know that I go out and treat them as if they are my parents. Although some of them can be rude. And if they’re rude, honestly, I asked to be taken off the case.”

Danyaal Raza is a family doctor from St. Michael’s Hospital in Regent Park, Canada’s oldest social housing project. The community is currently in the middle of what’s called “revitalization,” with the development of housing for a mixed income community, condos and social housing side by side. He has a diverse range of patients, from bankers to folks struggling to find work. “When most people think of work and health they think about going to the doctor and getting a sick note, but it’s so much more than that.”

Dr. Raza, who in full disclosure is also a friend of mine, is very passionate about social determinants of health, a buzzword of late. While he’s excited more and more people are talking about the concept, he admits it’s often something that isn’t clearly explained. “Social determinants of health are the parts of our lives that don’t have to do with biology or access to health care, that makes us sick. Things like income, education, level of literacy. Even things like race and racism, gender and sexism.”

Dr. Danyaal Raza tends to a patient at the Parkdale Community Health Centre.

This is at play even in how we value work and workers. Dr. Raza, Acsana and Doreen are all health care workers, taking care of our most vulnerable, but society doesn’t see it that way. The self-identity is also revealing: Dr. Raza prefers to be called Danyaal, Acsana prefers not to give her last name, and Doreen isn’t Doreen’s name. Doreen tells me that when she works at the hospital, the registered nurses call her “the sitter.”

Both Acsana and Doreen are immigrants, Acsana from Bangladesh, Doreen from Barbados. They are also both helping take care of their families, as is often expected of daughters anywhere in the world. Acsana is helping with her dad here in Toronto. Doreen is sending money and medical supplies back to her mom in Barbados. Without a drug plan, Doreen also has to buy her own medication. This adds up, as she’s on pain management.

Neither Acsana or Doreen complain about their work, as they take great pride in what they do. They care about caring for others. Doreen exclaims “I love it!” But she worries about getting enough hours, and not arriving home from a shift at 11:00 p.m. only to get a call that requires you to get up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning for another full day of demanding, physical work.

Since last year, the Ontario government has been conducting a Changing Workplaces Review. At present, they are reviewing public consultations on the changing nature of work as well as commissioned research on the subject. Advisors are expected to release a final report with recommendations at some point this summer. The review examines how policy can better reflect a new economy, shaped by temporary work and involuntary part-time hours, contract work, as well as self-employment.
 
The Workers Action Centre is driving this conversation forward with workers like Acsana and Doreen, both members of the centre. The organization recently launched Fight for $15 and Fairness, a campaign for a $15 minimum wage, fair scheduling, universal employment standards coverage, and paid sick days. Dr. Raza is a vocal supporter of paid sick days policy as a member of a health providers network. Right now, the province of Ontario does not have legislation requiring paid sick days for anyone. Workers in part-time, temporary or casual work are less likely to have paid sick days, same goes for anyone earning low or minimum wage.

These are the types of policy changes that could help workers like Acsana and Doreen, but also businesses that depend on healthy, productive employees. The Workers Action Centre is also calling for increased hours for part-time workers and moving more temp agency workers to permanent workers, and casual and contract workers to full time jobs. Their biggest goal, part of a larger North American movement, is the $15 minimum wage.

While working on this story, Acsana wondered what the call to action might be. Is knowing more about the issue of good jobs and decent work enough? “Those who are working at a temp agency or on minimum wage, they are not the only people who should be voicing out. All of us, Ontarians, in Canada, should voice out.”

She worries about the chain reaction if temp work becomes a permanent part of our culture of work. “If we don’t stop now … more people, a younger generation in high school now, the only job that will be available when they graduate is a temp agency.”

“That won’t be a great economy.”

Jennifer Hollett is a Canadian journalist who has reported for CBC, CTV, and CHUM. She is passionate about digital storytelling and community building and is an associate with the Atkinson Foundation. This story is part of the foundation’s commitment to decent work.

Nick Kozak is a freelance photojournalist whose current work is focused on the issues of community and identity, their inseparability and constant state of flux. Nick’s work has exhibited in Canada, the United Kingdom, China, Poland, Bangladesh, and the United States. His photos have appeared in the Toronto Star, Maclean’s Magazine, BBC Travel, and La Presse.

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