By Marie-Eve Trudel
Personal Support Workers (PSWs) are the first line of care for individuals who have difficulty caring for themselves, whether in their home or medical facility. PSWs work closely and alone with clients who often have high needs, which makes them especially vulnerable to experiencing violence and sexual harassment. They care deeply about their clients, so why are we not more concerned with their working conditions and keeping them safe from sexual harassment?
It has been well documented that PSWs across Ontario increasingly face risky and unsafe conditions in their workplaces. Many have been plagued with sexual harassment and assaults. A recent Oracle Research study on behalf of CUPE of hospital staff found that 63% had experienced physical violence, 49% of all hospital workers experienced sexual harassment, and 36% experienced sexual assault. Further, following the COVID-19 pandemic, 72% of staff reported feeling depressed and emotionally exhausted. This reflects a great failure within the system to keep PSWs safe in the workplace.
PSW workers face barriers to reporting violence in their workplace due to staffing constraints and work cultures in which they are encouraged to stay silent. Additionally, staff may face stigma, backlash or doubt when reporting incidents of assault. Many PSWs do not report violence, because losing a client can lead to a cut in pay.
So, what supports are available for PSW workers to help mitigate this situation? If you are a PSW who works in a facility, and you experience or witness violence, you have a legal right to report that violence without incurring any reprisal. If you witness violence at work, it is important to use your voice if it is safe and dial 911 if it is not. Often co-workers who group together and support each other can create changes within their workplaces by reporting unsafe situations together. You are also encouraged to seek legal advice to find out more about your options for reporting or making a claim for damages if your employer fails to protect you after you make a report.
Although personal support work is currently unregulated in Ontario, there are initiatives to change this, such as Bill 238. Once these new regulations are implemented, we hope that further protections and support will be implemented for PSWs. If we enhance safety for PSW workers in their workplace, everyone benefits, not just the individual workers, but also the clients they serve.
The Legal Clinic, and many other community legal clinics across the province, offer free legal information and advice for those experiencing harassment at work, and public legal education for employees and employers about how to address and prevent this type of harassment in the workplace. For more information, please contact The Legal Clinic at 613-264-7153 or visit our website at www.tlcshiwproject.com.