Support workers celebrate pay hike


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Trista Malinowski loves her job, but she barely earns enough to make ends meet.

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Trista Malinowski loves her job, but she barely earns enough to make ends meet.

The direct support worker with Inclusion Selkirk has held day programs for adults with intellectual disabilities, including teaching cooking, shopping and budgeting skills, for the past seven years.

In that time, co-workers who loved the job as much as she did quit because they couldn’t support their families or were fed up with short-staffing and high turnover.

“It’s not acceptable that it’s almost impossible to work in this field for some people because of what we get paid, and that we lose good people (who) go find a different job because they just can’t afford to live working in this field,” Malinowski said.

Clients are affected by it, too.

She recalled times where they weren’t able to offer a full range of activities to them because there weren’t enough workers.

“The people that we support have lost those people in their lives. They’ve had so many people come in and out of their lives because the staff, they just can’t afford to do it,” she said.

“How many (support workers) come into their life, in their lifetime? Way too many, and that’s not right. You should be able to have somebody that is with you for a career.”

So, when the province’s budget for 2023-24, which was unveiled last week, included $81 million to disability service workers, she was relieved.

“I thought, finally, we’re being recognized, we’re being appreciated for what we do, and it’s about time,” she said.

The increase in funding has been earmarked for the provincial Community Living DisABILITY Services and Children’s DisABILITY Services programs, which haven’t received a budget increase of this magnitude since its inception in the 1960s.

“It’s disgraceful that they’ve ignored this sector and the people that we support for 50 years, 60 years… (Our clients) are people too, and if you can’t find people to work in the field because they can’t afford it, to give them the support that they need to live their life, that’s unacceptable,” she said.

The provincial budget must still be passed by the legislature.

Margo Powell, executive director at Abilities Manitoba, said support workers are “ecstatic” about the increase, which, she added, is the result of years of advocacy work.

“We made it a priority, because our community rallied, because we were desperate,” she said.

“We’ve been in a heap of trouble, and we’ve been very clear about the kind of assistance that’s needed. So, I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re really pleased is that we were heard, and they responded. We have been advocating for this for decades — not years, decades, literally, my whole career.”

The pandemic was a “very terrifying, unknown time,” particularly for disability support workers, Powell said, many of whom had to completely change the way they interacted with clients, and take on additional risk.

“When COVID arrived, it had significant impacts on on service delivery for adults who have disabilities in our province… The role that those staff were playing changed very much to, we need to keep people safe, we need to keep people alive, and we need to keep coronavirus out of this space,” she said.

Turnover tripled for some organizations during that time, she said.

The challenges have remained post-pandemic.

“People might be in the job three or six months, and they find a job that they get 25 cents more an hour, and they’re gone,” she said. “We’ve been in a crisis.”

The average hourly funding rate will jump to $19 from $15.11 an hour.

It doesn’t necessarily mean all support workers will receive $19 an hour, she explained. Organizations receive $19 an hour and are tasked with creating a pay scale that averages out to that amount and incentivizes workers to become long-term staff who could end up making more than that.

Abilities Manitoba still wants the province to mandate “significantly” higher training standards. Currently, standards vary depending on the organization.

Powell said she believes standardized training would improve the quality of care.

“Ultimately, this is about giving the best possible services, so Manitobans with intellectual disabilities are living their best lives,” she said.

“This is a win. Now we get a chunk above minimum wage, because this is not minimum-wage work… We know that simply paying people more is not unequivocally going to lead to better quality. So, now we need to improve the expectations for the job.”

Malinowski and Powell both said the funding boost is a start.

“It can’t stop here. It needs to be looked at every year, and increases made accordingly to support the cost of living,” Malinowski said.

“We can’t be forgotten for another 50 or 60 years. The people we support deserve better than that.”

Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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