Drop-In Centre workers push for union citing safety, staffing, salary concerns

·5 min read
Some front-line shelter workers at the Calgary Drop-In Centre say they are fed up with unsafe working conditions and inadequate pay, so they are pushing to unionize. (Mike Symington/CBC - image credit)
Some front-line shelter workers at the Calgary Drop-In Centre say they are fed up with unsafe working conditions and inadequate pay, so they are pushing to unionize. (Mike Symington/CBC - image credit)

Some front-line workers at the Calgary Drop-In Centre say that on any given shift they're dealing with weapons, rampant drug use, drug dealing, overdoses, physical and verbal abuse, staffing shortages, inexperienced supervisors, unfair dealings with management and overall low morale — and they hope unionizing will help.

A handful of DI workers shared stories about their work conditions with CBC News under condition of confidentiality because they've signed a non-disclosure agreement that prevents them from making unflattering or disparaging comments publicly about their employer.

Despite that agreement, they still risk losing their jobs but say it's worth it because they are fed up with the way they are being treated.

"They don't feel heard and there's a lot of fear of retaliation if they do speak up," said Dominique Damian-Wallace, a member organizer with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Mike Symington/CBC
Mike Symington/CBC

CBC News reached out to the Calgary Drop-In Centre, which declined to do an interview but provided a statement:

"Above all else, we know that the staff serving Calgary's most vulnerable are the backbone of this organization, and we are continually committed to improving the staff experience," it said in part.

Weapons, drugs, violence

CBC News spoke to shelter staff with a range of seniority. For some, safety was a top concern.

"I have seen a sudden spike in the number of physical attacks on staff by clients … anywhere from a staff member being hit to a staff member being spat at."

Some reported being punched in the face or head, kicked from behind or hit with objects.

They say the clients using the centre are often high, drunk or both.

And they say not enough is being done to stop clients from using or selling drugs inside the building or smuggling in knives, sledgehammers, bats and other weapons.

"It's unbelievable … we need protection."

Staff say the DI's response is weak even when clients are verbally or physically abusive or caught with weapons. They say clients can be kicked out for a few hours or barred from the facility for days or weeks but those rules are not consistent and don't really work.

"Attack a staff member one day, the next day or the next night you're in because it's 10 below, so what does that say to the client? You can pretty well get away with anything you want, right?"

In response, the Drop-In Centre's executive director Sandra Clarkson said in an email that since taking over four years ago, the shelter has undergone several transformations, including "ongoing and regular review of operational procedures to ensure we are adapting to the changing needs of those we serve."

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

Wages don't 'cover risk pay'

Some workers said they haven't had a raise in years, because they were told they reached the top of the scale compared with other homeless shelters across Canada.

But they say the Calgary Drop-In Centre is unique. First of all, it's bigger than most.

According to its website, the DI is "long known as the largest shelter in North America." The main building accepts about 700 to 800 people per night.

Plus they say the clients are complex with severe addictions and mental health issues, and unlike many other shelters, individuals are not turned away when high or intoxicated.

"Considering the job we do, that every night we're potentially dealing with drug overdoses and being a first responder to emergency scenes, whether it's medical or violence — 20 bucks an hour doesn't cover risk pay."

In fact, some staff opt to work two jobs in order to make ends meet.

"Their wages are so low that they're applying for low income housing and competing with the clients that they're trying to find housing for as well. I've seen applications," said Damian-Wallace, who led a successful union drive for shelter workers at Alpha House.

A recent Drop-In Centre job posting for an adult care worker — the entry level front-line job at the shelter — was $18.25 per hour, which works out to about $36,000 per year.

Those who spoke to CBC News said they made about $20 to $26 per hour, which works out to roughly $39,000 to $50,700 per year if working full time.

In comparison, Damian-Wallace says, the top six executives at the shelter, including Clarkson, make anywhere from $120,000 to $299,000, according to the Canada Revenue Agency.

Clarkson said a comprehensive review was done in recent years and that all employees are paid above a living wage. She says they are also working with limited funding resources that haven't increased in years.

High turn around, short-staffed

Some tell CBC News that job-related stress and frustration has led to more turnover in recent years. As a result, they say, the ratio of full-time to casual or part-time workers has dropped significantly, affecting the dynamics on the floor.

"When you just don't know the people you work with, they're there one day and not the next, it really does add stress to the job. Because every situation is a whole new, heightened state of just watching, 'Is your co-worker going to handle it or not?'"

Some say the sheer volume of overdoses — some fatal — are taking a toll on staff.

"It's very common during drug poisoning that they'll turn grey and they'll stop breathing for a little while. And seeing that multiple times a day, it's something that really builds up."

The Drop-In Centre recently boosted its mental health benefits from $500 per year to $2,000 to help pay for counselling.


Vote timeline

This is the third recent attempt to organize a union by employees at the Drop-In Centre.

They need just over 40 per cent of eligible employees to agree to apply to the provincial labour board to hold a vote. And those signatures must be within three months of collecting the first signature. In this case, that's Aug. 17.

A vote will then be held as soon as possible as determined by the Alberta Labour Board.

For the vote to then pass there needs to be just over 50 per cent of eligible employees in agreement.

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