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Local health care system under strain from growing shortage of PSWs

Troy Shantz Sarnia-Lambton is experiencing a shortage of personal support workers (PSWs) so severe it’s impacting the ability of health-care agencies to deliver services, officials say.

Troy Shantz

Sarnia-Lambton is experiencing a shortage of personal support workers (PSWs) so severe it’s impacting the ability of health-care agencies to deliver services, officials say.

The situation is so grim the Sarnia-Lambton Workforce Development Board held a job fair at Lambton College last week, and though more than a dozen health-care providers showed up with jobs to offer, they easily outnumbered the handful of job seekers.

“When I started two years ago I had 93 staff. Now I’m down to 52,” said Michelle Seguin, personal support manager at CarePartners, a home-care provider at the event.

She said, only half jokingly, that if a busload of PSWs arrived they would all find work immediately.

Most agencies are offering $16 to $19 an hour, but much of the work is casual and not permanent part-time, let alone full-time.

“It could be 20 hours one week and then down to 15 the next, then back up. It varies,” said Melanie Bouck, with the Alzheimer Society Sarnia-Lambton.

Hours filled through the agency’s home-care program are dependent on client needs, she explained.

“I think there’s a lot of contract work and casual work and not a lot of full-time employment, so it’s not really that attractive of a position.”

At Vision Nursing Home, the shrinking team of personal support workers is compounded by an increase in residents with acute care needs.

The home could hire 15 PSWs immediately, said Gayle McDougall, Vision’s clinical support lead.

“I think we’re facing more burnout now because of the burnout,” she said. “Something has to change, but what is the answer?”

Lambton College offers a one-year personal support worker program that trains students for jobs in long-term and retirement homes, hospitals and home-care placements.

But the shortage of qualified applicants is so great some agencies are hiring uncertified workers and training them on the job for some of the duties PSWs do.

Several current and former PSWs told The Journal the work is underpaid and under supported. When shifts go unfilled, the strain on those left to provide an acceptable standard of care can be unbearable, they said.

Since January of 2018, Lambton County’s three publicly operated long-term care homes have lost 57 PSW through resignation and retirement, as well as nine registered nurses and 17 registered practical nurses, according to a recent report.

Though able to hire some replacements, the homes in September alone recorded 149 hours of vacant shifts, roughly a month of employment.

Injuries and medical leaves are also up, and in exit interviews departing staff said they were dissatisfied with casual hours, which forced them to juggle several part-time jobs, the report says.

“There is no time to spend with clients, not even while they’re dying,” said one Sarnia worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“I think for myself that was the hardest part. I never wanted a client to be left alone while they were dying.”

Staff at one placement during her eight-year career was given five minutes in the morning to get clients up, washed, clothed and out the door, she said.

“It was always like a giant assembly line.”

She quit in the end because of the inconsistent hours. Supervisors asked night-shift staff if they wanted to work the following day as well. With two young children at home, the demands became too much, she said.

“While studying at Lambton, they teach us about what an amazing job it is. They really glorify it and they never prepare you for the awful truths.”

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