“Although the care they provide is crucial, these workers are often under-recognized or outright forgotten. They deserve to be seen.” — Larry Brown, NUPGE President
Ottawa (19 May 2020) — Through the widespread shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, workers in group homes have continued to do their jobs supporting some of society’s most vulnerable.
“Although the care they provide is crucial, these workers are often under-recognized or outright forgotten,” said Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). “They deserve to be seen.”
Bracing for COVID-19 in a vulnerable setting
The pandemic has put nearly every aspect of the economy and daily life under strain, and that includes life and work in group homes.
Group homes provide varying levels of support to people living with disabilities, youth, or people experiencing mental health issues. They are often part of the Community Social Services or Developmental Services sector.
As the residents require varying degrees of support, group home workers perform a range of duties. In some cases, staff provide support in nearly every aspect of a client’s daily life.
In these shared households, already-vulnerable residents live in close quarters with one another and with their support workers, making physical distancing nearly impossible. Some residents may also experience difficulty understanding why they can’t participate in their usual activities or have visits with friends and family due to the pandemic. Isolation also threatens to have significant mental health impacts on both residents and staff.
Concerns not adequately addressed
While many of these challenges echo the ones in long-term care homes or hospitals, the situation in group homes has received considerably less attention during the pandemic — in the public discourse and in policy discussions.
“We’ve heard from our members in the sector that group homes were an afterthought in governments' pandemic response,” said Brown. “Group home workers are understandably worried about their own health and safety at work, as well as the safety and wellbeing of their clients.”
Brown added: “Like so many others on the front lines, group home workers are concerned about personal protective equipment (PPE) supply, what happens in the event of an outbreak in the home, and the potential risks of reopening. Two months into the pandemic, there are still too many unanswered questions.”
A fragmented sector creates barriers
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted a pre-existing challenge in many provinces: the fragmentation of the group home sector. There might be numerous agencies or individual employers responsible for group homes, each with their own processes and working conditions. In Ontario, for example, there are around 700 developmental services agencies, with multiple unions representing their workers.
The resulting challenges are made clear in a time of crisis, when workers and their unions must sort out questions of PPE, self-isolation protocols, accommodations, and compensation on an employer-by-employer basis. Furthermore, employers may exploit this fragmentation to undermine the collective voice of group home workers in advocating for decent working conditions and for residents' quality of care.
But this lack of coordination presents challenges during non-crisis times, too. Like so many other areas, the pandemic has simply underscored a long-standing issue that needs a solution.
Not all bad news
But we’ve also heard stories of success. Even in the face of pre-existing and new challenges, group home workers and their unions have continued to advocate for staff and for their clients.
They have made important gains, like securing access to necessary benefits and accommodations. They have also kept up the pressure on employers to implement health and safety protocols that ensure the wellbeing of both staff and residents. We even heard one story about workers finding creative ways, like virtual trivia nights, to stay in touch and support one another.
Giving group home workers the recognition they deserve
Group home workers provide residents with the care they need to live with the dignity they deserve. For that, we owe them our recognition and our respect.
That means ensuring they are well-supported, fairly compensated, safe in their workplace, and equipped with the necessary resources to give residents the highest quality of care.
Group home workers show immense compassion and dedication to their clients and to their fellow workers. Governments and employers must not take that for granted.