Low pay leads to 'revolving door' of adult support workers in Manitoba, mom says

·5 min read
Kalyn Falk has had a hard time finding support workers for her adult son Noah, who has autism and needs support from carers.  (Cameron MacLean/CBC Manitoba - image credit)
Kalyn Falk has had a hard time finding support workers for her adult son Noah, who has autism and needs support from carers. (Cameron MacLean/CBC Manitoba - image credit)

Kalyn Falk's son Noah loves to take walks by the duck pond in St. Vital Park picking up feathers from the many dozens of geese.

That's a good day for the 24-year-old with autism and high support needs. Other days, he and his family simply have to manage intense abdominal pain caused by a gastrointestinal condition the family is still in the process of diagnosing, but which causes Noah to act aggressively in ways that can hurt himself and others.

"When he is calm, he's doing his photography, he's doing his drawing. We've sold at a lot of art sales. He's part of the community," Falk said.

"But sometimes we go to crisis level where we're just managing pain and managing anxiety and we're just coping. But when we're living like this, we're just having a lovely life."

Noah needs stable care from people he knows and trusts, but widespread staffing shortages at organizations serving adults with intellectual disabilities have made it hard to find workers who stay with him long enough to form a bond and learn his particular ways of communicating, she said.

Illustration courtesy Noah Falk
Illustration courtesy Noah Falk

Organizations that help people living with intellectual disabilities have had to cut back services due to widespread staffing shortages, which they blame on wages that haven't kept up with other sectors.

Falk praises the direct support workers who have helped her son since he was diagnosed before the age of two, but she estimates that he has had more than 100 direct support workers in his lifetime.

"It feels dehumanizing to have a revolving door of people, because it teaches him to say goodbye," she said.

The emergence of Noah's gastrointestinal condition led to a health crisis that forced Falk to temporarily give up his care to go to Victoria General Hospital in February.

That crisis came about partly because the group home where he lived part time lacked the resources to provide the kind of consistent care needed to manage Noah's sensitive dietary needs, which play a significant role in his behaviour, she said.

They are still in the process of trying to find him a permanent group home, which they say he needs because of the intensity of the care he requires.

Staffing crisis

The sector has always faced staffing shortages, but the problem has gotten significantly worse in recent years, said Audra Penner, president and chief executive officer of ImagineAbility Inc., which provides day services to adults living with intellectual disabilities.

Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies would typically operate with vacancies of 10 to 15 per cent, she said. Now, vacancy rates have risen to between 30 and 50 per cent.

"The primary reason for the staff shortages is that Department of Families funding has not kept pace with inflation," Penner said.

Wages for direct support workers range from $12 to $15 per hour, with the primary source of funding coming from the Department of Families, she said.

Front-line workers at ImagineAbility currently make $13.75 per hour. That puts them below wages paid in other similar sectors, Penner said.

Pre-pandemic, ImagineAbility employed almost 80 front-line workers, and planned to add 15 more. Currently, it employs 49 people.

"So that primarily is it, that we're not able to provide the wage that people need to live," Penner said.

"When [other] people are making $15, $16, $17 an hour, they choose to go elsewhere, especially with the inflationary pressures."

ImagineAbility has had to reduce its programming and limit the amount of people it can serve. There are currently 80 people on a waiting list, Penner said.

The lack of services is having a significant impact on their clients, she said.

"People just want to be able to live their life again. They want to be able to be supported out in the community… And they are not. They are at home, or with their residential agency, and waiting. People are waiting for their lives to start."

Boosting wages

A spokesperson for the Manitoba government said the province recognizes that organizations like ImagineAbility "continue to experience challenges recruiting and retaining direct service workers given today's competitive labour market."

In April, the provincial government announced Community Living Disability Services providers supporting adults with intellectual disabilities would receive $10 million as part of the 2022 budget to increase wages for some front-line workers to a minimum of $15.11 per hour.

That increase did not apply to day service providers, who instead received a 2.7 per cent wage top-up.

Most front-line support workers helping people with intellectual disabilities saw their pay rise by $1.36 per hour, said Margo Powell, executive director of Abilities Manitoba, an umbrella organization that advocates for service providers.

Despite that increase, people working with adults with intellectual disabilities still get paid less than other "helping professions," like health-care aides, child-care workers and educational assistants, Powell said.

"The reality is … our field, people in Manitoba who need supports, who have intellectual disabilities, are at the bottom of the barrel," she said.

The provincial government issued a one-time, $2.5 million support grant to CLDS agencies to deliver residential and day services.

Margaux Watt/CBC
Margaux Watt/CBC

Abilities Manitoba is advocating for pay for front-line workers to be set at 50 per cent above the provincial minimum wage, which is currently $11.95 and set to rise to $12.35 in October.

The spokesperson for the provincial government said it is monitoring the impacts its funding increases have on the adult disability sector.

Falk says it's too soon to say whether the government's efforts are having an impact.

She agrees that direct support workers deserve more pay, but she also says there needs to be a scale with increasing levels of pay for those workers with more training and experience, giving them a reason to think of the job as a long-term career.

"The people that are there long-term are the people that love this and are actually skilled," she said.

"They're the ones that make Noah's day relaxed and calm, because they have so much to bring. And so I think that people who have been doing this for longer, or that are doing more support, do need to be paid more."

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