Women and the Workplace: How far have we really come?
Over 20 years ago, I decided to go back to school full-time to become a Certified Personal Support Worker. I had been working in the health care field as a Homemaker for Comcare Health Services and realized that I could make more money and become a more desirable employee if I upgraded my skills and education. I had read an ad in the local newspaper stating that the provincial government was offering a PSW course at St. Ann Adult Learning Centre here in Niagara Falls. There was a huge demand for healthcare workers in the area due to the large volume of ailing senior citizens who either wanted to stay in their homes or that needed to be placed into long-term care facilities. New nursing homes and retirement places were being built all over the province. The government was slashing Registered Nurses positions in favour of saving money by training personal support workers to perform a lot of the duties that a RN had previously been paid for. Under the direction and guidance of a registered nurse, a PSW could complete a lot of services at a fraction of the cost. A PSW could never replace all of the skills and knowledge that a RN had acquired, but they can do a lot of the care at a much lower wage. A lot of nurses resented losing their jobs, and many were forced to take jobs in the United States. There were many nurses who treated the influx of PSW’s with disdain and condescension. It made for a very stressful work environment for the first few batches of PSWs that graduated and entered the workforce.
So, for a full school year, I dropped my kids off at school and then drove myself to St. Ann’s Adult Learning Centre to upgrade my education in order to provide a better life for my children and myself. After a full day at school I would pick my children up from school and then go to work in people’s homes until almost midnight. When I first signed up for the PSW course, there were no tuition fees so that was a huge incentive for me to make the sacrifices I would have to make in order to get my certificate and PSW pin. It was one of the hardest years of my life. It was a constant struggle to juggle all of my work, school and home duties, not to mention the time I missed out on with my children. But it was the light at the end of the tunnel that kept me going. I kept reminding myself that it was only a temporary situation and that when I was done I would earn a key that gave me the means to financially support my children.
I worked really hard to achieve my goals. Going back to school and improving myself gave me such confidence and pride in my skills. I took my studies very seriously! I’d finally been given the opportunity to improve myself and achieve some measure of security, knowing that I would be able to provide for my children. I would be able to give them the “little extras” in life that are so important to children. I would be able to buy them the latest fashions and send them off to school with pride. It gave me great satisfaction to know that I could afford to provide my daughter with dance lessons, and my son played soccer and baseball. As a single mother I was hyper-sensitive to the accepted stereotype of the label “single mother” and all the negative connotations it conjured up. I refused to accept that that was my lot in life. I refused to believe that just because I didn’t live with a man, somehow my value had decreased and I was destined for poverty and a life of slovenliness. I didn’t feel like I should into a party animal because I was now single again. It was very important to keep a routine and continuity in the lives of my children. I knew how painful and confusing divorce was when I was a child. I felt that it was paramount to spare them from as much anxiety and disruption as possible. I somehow instinctively knew that my actions would have a direct effect on my children and that I had the responsibility to be the best role model I could be. Now, I’m not tooting my horn…..I know I wasn’t the perfect parent. I know now of the mistakes I have made and wish I could have a do-over. But, I know that life doesn’t work that way so I try to make amends for my transgressions. I try to teach my children how to navigate through this ever changing world without losing hope.
I have always tried to set a good example for my children to follow. They watched me work really hard when I was a young mom in my twenties. Before I became a PSW, I wore many different hats in order to provide a happy childhood for my kids. I worked as an assistant superintendent at a low-income apartment and townhouse complex. I painted apartments on the third floor of buildings in July. The temperature would be in the nineties because the apartments are not air conditioned. I rode a lawn mower all day in the heat and sun, ripping my arms and legs on hedges. I helped my mother with the care of my elderly grandmother 3 times a week for eight years. My children were with me and watched their great grandmother deteriorate into someone they feared because of dementia. I learned a lot about end of life care by taking care of my maternal grandmother. Although, I wish I had been a PSW when I took care of her, because I would have known so much more and would have been able to give her better care. Again, I made my fair share of mistakes but my heart was in the right place and I truly did my best at the time with the knowledge and education I had.
So……when I decided to return to school to get my PSW certification, I knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. I knew that it was going to take me out of my comfort zone. I knew it was going to be a big adjustment to my regularly scheduled routine. I knew my children would eventually start to complain about my absence, and I would feel guilty. I often cried on my way to work, having to pull myself together before I could carry out my duties. I ate meals in my car and dropped into bed at night physically exhausted and emotionally drained. Some nights I had school work to do before I would try to grab a few hours of sleep, just to do it all over again the next day. Five days a week, for 10 months. On the weekends I had a part-time job as a chambermaid at one of the local hotels on Clifton Hill. I was stretched to the limit, yet I did it because of my firm belief that once I completed my course I would be able to cut everything back to just one job. I would be making more money so I would be able to give up all the other jobs I had. However, life doesn’t always go the way you plan it. Sometimes reality and ideals are worlds apart.
In the beginning, my life as a PSW was everything I had hoped it would be. Because I was working through an agency doing home care for a wide variety of clientele, I was able to choose my availability. The flip side to having flexible hours meant that the pay was less. So because my children were still young and I wanted to be as involved in their life as I could be, I stayed in home care for many years. I knew that the PSWs who worked in nursing homes were making more money than those of us who worked in retirement homes or home care agencies. And when I first started working for an agency there was no medical benefits coverage. Still, I was thrilled that I could create my own schedule that would allow me to be with my children as much as possible. I knew that they would only be young once and I didn’t want to miss out on it. I wanted to go on school trips with them and spend as many holidays as I could with them. I wanted to give them the childhood I never had.
Many years passed, I went back to school and took classes to get certification in Palliative Care. I loved my job and I met some incredibly interesting people throughout the years. It was always sad to say goodbye to those that I had the honour of caring for, but I knew that it came with the territory so I learned to develop a professional attitude in order to protect myself from the inevitable heartache. The thing that I hadn’t prepared myself for was the eventual burnout and earnings that never increased. Getting a raise in pay didn’t happen often, and I never did find employment that provided medical benefits. In fact, I always found it quite ironic that the very field that I worked in didn’t guarantee a stable or secure job. Working in healthcare meant working your way up the ranks in many cases. Finding a full-time position in healthcare is like winning the lottery. You often had to start off trying to get a foot in the door by accepting a casual position. This meant that you were guaranteed zero hours, but had to accept any shift that came available at the last minute in order to establish a reputation of someone who really proved their worth and dependability to the agency. Word spreads quickly when you are a good worker, which means it doesn’t take too long to move up into regularly scheduled shifts. I eventually found a couple of these much sought after jobs. There was the time I worked private duty, one-on-one at Hotel Dieu Hospital through an agency. I thought I had hit the jackpot. My main duties consisted of observing and charting a psychiatric patient because they were either flight risks or high-maintenance. Hospital staff were always extremely busy and did not have the time to complete their regularly scheduled tasks and deal with a difficult or non-compliant patient. If the patient did become aggressive I had the option to ring for security or ask the Charge Nurse if they chemically restrain them for everyone’s protection. The other kind of patient I cared for was someone who was in isolation to prevent the spread of certain illnesses that were fatal for some people. The less amount of people you have going into isolation rooms greatly reduces the spread among staff and other patients. When caring for these patients, I had to wear a gown, mask, gloves and shoe covers. I had to wear this protective gear for most of my 12 hour shift. The only time I removed these items was to leave the room for my breaks, to go to the washroom, or to report something to the charge nurse. It was hot, sweaty and a bit claustrophobic. But, they were 12 hour shifts. If I worked 3 shifts a week I earned a really nice living for me and my kids. There were also the patients that I escorted to the Nephrology Department for their dialysis treatments. It was a fascinating, rewarding career for me. I loved every single minute of it, even the tense moments. I learned so much and felt so proud of my accomplishments. I even went to Burlington for more training and was promoted to a position in the office, as an Office -Assistant and Scheduler. But then, one day the agency announced that they were closing their office in St. Catharines. They offered me a full-time position in the Burlington office but I found the commute too stressful and time-consuming, cutting deeply into my time with my children.
One of my last jobs working in healthcare was in a long-term care facility as a Nurse Unit Clerk. The stress and tension in that position was beginning to effect my health in a very dire way. I started out part-time, under the direction of a very experienced, knowledgeable, strong woman who took a liking to me and took me under her wing. She knew the union book inside and out. She knew the rules and regulations backwards and forwards. She guided me through the office politics and situations that some employees created. Unfortunately, after being with the company for over 5 years she decided to terminate her employment. I was devastated, but prepared to just keep on doing my job to the best of my ability. At this point I had only been employed for a few months, so when they offered me a full-time position, I accepted with trepidation. Once word spread that my boss had resigned it became a free-for-all, with employees calling in sick at the last minute in large numbers. We were short-staffed all the time and I was getting the brunt of everyone’s frustrations. I understood how bad the working conditions had become but I was powerless to make changes. I certainly couldn’t force staff to come into work. I resented the implication that I was somehow responsible for the lack of staff on the floors. I went to management and reported what was going on now that my boss had left. I was told that I had to be more firm with the staff. However, the staff was protected by a union that filed grievances on a constant basis. So I felt like I was stuck in the middle with no one looking out for my best interests. I hated to quit because that would make me feel like a failure, but my health is more important to me than a paycheque. The older I get the more I realize I can’t take my health for granted anymore. And I was learning the hard way that stress can have dire effects on our health.
Fast forward a few years. My daughter now works in healthcare, she is a PSW and a Dietary Aide, just like her mom. But things have changed a lot in the field now. Retirement homes are now accepting heavy-care patients, but wages have stayed really low. Sometimes as low as minimum wage. Really? Please tell me where the incentive is to go to college, pay tuition fees and perhaps come out of school with a debt that needs to be repaid, only to make minimum wage? My daughter gets paid the same hourly wage that I was earning when I left the field 5 years ago. I made the same wage for the last 5 years I was working in healthcare. How is this acceptable in the year 2015? Why are women still making much lower wages than men? Why do you think the nursing field mostly comprises of women? Do you think men would accept such harsh working conditions at such low rates? The main alternatives for women in the workplace in the Niagara Region seems to be in Tourism, Housekeeping, or Retail. And we all know that those are not prestigious jobs that someone could comfortably raise a family on. When will hard-working women get the respect and compensation that they truly deserve? I’ve been listening and observing the women’s movement since the seventies. In my opinion, based on my own career experiences, things still haven’t changed enough to improve the lives of women and their children. The majority of the available occupations are filled by single mothers who struggle just to make ends meet.
I’ve also noticed that working conditions for women in healthcare have declined greatly in the last 10 years. The workload keeps getting heavier, while staff cuts are still happening and wages are frozen and the corporations who run health care facilities are making huge profits. The ones who spend their days caring for our sick or elderly family members are not regarded with much admiration or appreciation. Instead, I’ve seen the decline slide down to the level of regarding a PSW to be as lowly as a domestic help was considered as back in the day. I wonder what kind of toll this must take on a person after a certain amount of time passes and nothing seems to improve. Perhaps this is the reason for such a high turnover in the healthcare field. Or maybe it’s the never-ending search for the promise of a better job, only to be disappointed time and time again. If my daughter is making the same hourly rate I was making 10 years ago, does that mean her daughter faces the same bleak future? I must say, that’s a very depressing thought to contemplate.
The glass ceiling still exists. I know because I’ve bumped it on many occasions in my career life. So how do we make things better for women in the workplace now and in the future? Who is going to make this a priority in our government? Who will speak out on behalf of women and their lives in the workplace, and the huge contribution that they make to society? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I believe if we talk about it more and bring it to the attention of our community and political leaders, hopefully someone will listen before it becomes a bigger problem than it already is. Women need to be recognized and compensated justly for their immense commitment to the needs of others. Women need to be able to take pride in their chosen careers that impact the lives of so many.
I’d like to end this by saying that if women didn’t go to work tomorrow, the world around here would come to a standstill. Women are the fabric that unite our community and look out for one another. Without women in the workplace, everything would come to a halt. I dare you to find men to fill all the positions currently being done by women. It’ll never happen. Not at the current rate of pay and substandard working conditions. I can almost guarantee it.
Written by Marilyn White