by Colin Smith
Many Morinville parents of special needs children are having trouble finding workers to provide caregiving support.
One of them is Melissa Rondeau, an eight-year resident of the community, who has three special needs children. They are an eight-year-old non-verbal autistic, a 10-year-old on the severe end of the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder/oppositional defiant disorder spectrum and a 14-year-old.
Rondeau receives funding through Alberta’s Family Support for Children with Disabilities (FSCD) program to hire community aides and respite care workers to help her with caregiving.
The problem is getting the people to provide the care.
“There are not enough workers for our needs for respite and community care,” Rondeau said in a recent interview. “We had a community aide for seven to eight months. Another for six weeks.”
Community aides work with the child out of home, while respite workers can be employed in or out of home.
“We have equal amounts of time with respite workers and community aides, 12 hours per kid per month,” said Rondeau. “Respite workers can be anyone over the age of 16 and can be a family member. Community care aides have to be over the age of 18 and cannot be a family member.”
Her funding from FSCD to pay the caregivers is $12.36 per hour, “or a little more for community aides.”
“I know quite a few families in Morinville in the same situation. We all have this problem and we don’t have anybody to give it to.”
Terra Bell has two children, aged seven and nine, with autism.
Bell has been able to find caregiving support, but acknowledges it can be a problem.
“We have been fortunate,” she said. “I know that there are others who are doing without. There is a definite need.”
Rondeau is now connected with Transitions, a St. Albert-based non-profit agency that provides community aides and respite workers, among other services.
“They tell us it is really hard to find workers in Morinville,” she said.
Transitions executive director Paul Fujishige confirmed that it is a challenge finding people to fill these jobs in Morinville.
“There is a lack of available people,” he said “And that’s not just in Morinville. It’s in St. Albert as well.”
A major reason is that the jobs don’t pay well, Fujishige acknowledges.
“We’re in an industry where low wages hinder our ability to get staff to serve our clients,” he said. “The wage levels for people who take care of disabled people are low. They have been chronically underfunded for more than a decade.”
What Transitions pays its workers is also based on provincial government funding.
“We’re limited by what government the government give,” said Fujishige. “We can only go so far before employing a person becomes unaffordable.”
Over the past three years the government has increased the amount allotted for caregiver pay, with the most recent increment announced last fall and implemented in April.
Following the increase, Transitions pays $15.27 per hour for a starting employee without training, up from $14. After eight years with the agency, the wage goes up to $20 per hour.
“That helps, but $15.27 for some of the work we ask people to do, it’s not very much.”
He noted that labour market in Alberta is hot. There continues to be a shortage of workers and so competition for them is strong.
“The challenge is that there has been 10 years of neglect,” Fujishige stated. “That leaves us behind other sectors where there have been increases.”
He pointed out that the food industry, another generally low-paid line of work, has been forced to bump up wages in order to attract workers, while dealing with people in a caregiving role is more demanding.
In the caregiving field itself, unionized workers have been able to negotiate increases.
The worker shortage also presents problems for those currently employed in the field.
“Existing staff have to put in more hours. Some of them burn out. You lose some of your good people in that way”
While Transitions doesn’t have temporary foreign workers on staff, Fujishige believes the federal government’s tightening up of that program may lead to increased employment problems in the field.
“You might think that getting rid of temporary foreign workers would result in more jobs being available,” he said. “But if businesses are forced to shut as a result of labour shortages it may mean that fewer services are available.”
Fujishige said another boost to funding for caregiver wages is expected, though he doesn’t know when.
Rondeau hopes that getting the word out about the caregiver jobs going begging will encourage people to seek them.
“I want to let more people know that there is this work available,” she said. “I want people to work for me so we can continue to live a normal life.”