Why this personal support worker left Ontario's long-term care system to start a co-op instead
There’s 'a systemic failure' that needs to be addressed, says co-op co-founder Danielle Turpin
Danielle Turpin's job as a personal support worker was often a stressful one, even before the pandemic. But one incident at a Peterborough, Ont., long-term care home pushed her to her breaking point.
"This ... resident really had to use the washroom, and she had to wait because we didn't have the staff to be able to assist her," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
Turpin said the resident was incontinent and ended up having an accident, which Turpin said was "probably one of the most degrading experiences" the resident ever had.
"And I was part of that, and I felt like I contributed to that," she said. "So it was very shortly after that her and I both had a cry, and it was very shortly after that where I decided I can't be a part of this."
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Turpin spoke to management about the incident and felt supported. But she said the pandemic made situations like hers more common.
"Because of the short-staffing issues, PSWs were forced to make tough decisions regarding client care, [and] sometimes had to make decisions regarding their safety and not following care plans properly just to get the job done," she said.
Turpin said she doesn't blame individual workers or care homes for these problems. Rather, she sees it as "a systemic failure" that needs policy changes and better funding for long term care homes and home care.
In response, she left the long-term care home in the summer of 2020 and co-founded Home Care Workers Cooperative Inc. It's a co-op for PSWs that offers clients throughout Peterborough and the surrounding areas care in their own homes.
She said PSWs have to work an average of 20 hours per week for six months before becoming eligible for membership. But once they do, members will "have an equal vote in policy changes and decision making, such as benefits, wage, profit-sharing, work hours, et cetera," she said.
Turpin started the co-operative, in part, as a response to the lack of empowerment and a collective voice for PSWs in the industry.
"We don't have the ability to really seek the proper type of working environment that we deserve, especially in larger cities where the majority of our racialized women," she said.
The Current requested a statement from Health Canada and the Ministry of Health Ontario about working conditions for personal support workers, but did not receive a response yet.
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Power in the workers' hands
Vivian Stamatopoulos, associate teaching professor in Ontario Tech University's social-science and humanities faculty, expressed concerns about the effects co-ops like Turpin's could have on long-term care as a whole.
"I understand why these workers are taking the issue into their own hands given the lack of sufficient provincial response to address the staffing woes in [long-term care] and home care alike," she told The Current in an email.
"But it will inevitably produce a form of two-tiered care where those [who] can pay for better care will."
Stamatopoulos said co-ops like Turpin's are "a glaring indication of failure on the part of both our federal and provincial governments," to properly support long-term care and home workers.
"Our collective goal should be to provide safe and decent working conditions for all LTC and home care workers, the majority of which are women, and put a stop to the ongoing expansion of private entities delivering this care," she said.
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But Judith Fudge, professor of Labour Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., said a two-tier system already exists, in the form of retirement homes.
"My parent had to go into a retirement home during the pandemic, and luckily they had enough income because they sold their house to go into a retirement home rather than a publicly provided long-term care home or privately-provided long-term care home," she told The Current.
"We already know that people are paying out of pocket rather than going through the local health networks for personal care workers in their private homes. So the two-tier system exists."
Fudge, who formerly worked at the feminist activist organization the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, said there are two basic ways to protect workers' quality of work.
One way is for workers to unionize in order to get some bargaining power. But she said it's difficult to get any real bargaining power and protections in some provinces such as Ontario, where the provincial government sets their payment rates.
The other option is a co-op such as Turpin's. "You each put in a bit of capital and you organize the work yourself, and then you can democratically decide whether or not there's a risk that you want to bear," she explained.
"So I think it's much better than having for-profit home care."
Workers actually organizing so that some of the benefits go to them rather than shareholders is a good way of going forward.-Judith Fudge
Turpin said the most important thing about worker cooperatives like hers is it "gives power back to the workers by way of worker-ownership and democratic control in their work environment."
"Nothing's going off to distance shareholders or for-profit agencies," she said.
It's why Fudge said workers like Turpin should be congratulated for taking matters into their own hands.
"I'm opposed to a two-tier system, but I think that workers actually organizing so that some of the benefits go to them rather than shareholders is a good way of going forward," she said.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini, with files from Yvette Brend. Interview with Danielle Turpin produced by Joana Draghici.