How do you recruit personal support workers during a pandemic?

COVID-19 has strained the health-care sector — and some are worried that there aren’t enough PSWs in training to deal with the crisis
By Mary Baxter - Published on Oct 02, 2020
Figures from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities indicate that total enrolment in PSW programs across the province dropped nearly 3 per cent between 2015 and 2018. (iStock/ Daisy-Daisy)

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CHATHAM — After the grandfather she’d looked after for a year and a half was placed in long-term care because of the progression of his Alzheimer’s disease, Melissa Lariviere realized that she wanted to become a personal support worker. “I wanted to keep doing this for people — being there when they couldn’t be there for themselves,” says the Chatham resident.

Lariviere, 28, was on social assistance and didn’t have the money to acquire the training, but she’d heard of a program that would provide training for free and organize paid employment as a health-support worker while she undertook the course.

SE Career College of Health coordinates the program. An arm of SE Health, a non-profit service provider of nursing and support services, the college arranges for companies or organizations to sponsor students’ training and works with the sponsors to coordinate a convenient local location for the program’s delivery.

The program reflects one of several ways in which colleges across the province are changing the delivery of PSW training, both to respond to the demand for personal support workers and to attract students to their programs. Health-care leaders say the need for such workers is now critical. Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, a union that represents 21,500 personal support workers in Ontario, says a recent survey it conducted showed that 30 per cent of workers who had been off work during the COVID-19 crisis did not plan to return. Ian Da Silva, director of human resources at the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association and the Canadian Support Workers Association, says that each year, one third of those working as PSWs exit the profession and that, since 2011, the front-line health-care vacancy rate in Ontario has risen from 1.9 per cent to 4.6 per cent. He expects the trend to continue: “COVID-19 just amplified everything,” he says.

COVID-19 has also played a role in changing the delivery of these programs. In London, placements were put on hold, delaying students’ ability to complete the program. Placements are slowly starting to happen again, says Alicia Davies, who coordinates Fanshawe College’s PSW programs in London and St. Thomas. Some students have already begun working, but those paid hours won’t count towards their graduation certificates, so students will have to return to complete the practicum portion of the program, she says. “We really feel that our students need to engage in that in a safe practice environment with an instructor to make sure that their skills are appropriate,” Davies explains. “The problem that can occur is that if we’re letting students go into a workplace, and if they’re not being taught skills that are appropriate, they can learn a lot of bad habits really quickly and perpetuate bad care.”

Conestoga College in Kitchener made the decision to allow paid work to count toward the school’s placement requirements, says Sarah Pottier, chair of the college’s PSW and supportive-care program. The decision, she explains, was prompted by provincial pandemic measures limiting students to one location to gain their work experience (normally, students do placements in different settings). “It allows them to reach more employers now than we used to in the past with group placements,” she says. Students can earn money, and employers can get workers. “It’s provided that consistency of care in the midst of the pandemic,” she says.

In most cases, training has moved online in order to keep everyone safe. At SE, says says Kim Utley, the college’s senior lead, online educational components means that her college can deliver portions of the same program to students in different locations; labs and clinical work remain hands-on and in person. “It just gives us a lot more flexibility with where students are coming,” Utley says. “It gives the students more flexibility too, especially if there are child-care issues.”

Da Silva says that enrolment across the province has dwindled since 2015 and will likely continue that decline this year: “From what I understand, there are no full programs.”

Figures provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities indicate that total enrolment in PSW programs across the province dropped nearly 3 per cent — from 7,153 to 6,955 — between 2015 and 2018. Enrolment dropped at public colleges by 25 per cent between 2015 and 2019. Numbers for the current year “are not available yet,” Ciara Byrne, a ministry spokesperson, says via email.

A report De Silva prepared in 2019 indicates an even steeper decline: nearly 8 per cent between 2015 and 2017. Enrolment rates dropped more than 16 per cent in northern Ontario, more than 10 per cent in the GTA, and more than 9 per cent in southwestern Ontario during the two-year period. Eastern Ontario saw an increase in enrolment of more than 12 per cent during that time because of a new program introduced at a college there.

Da Silva attributes the decline to wide-spread awareness of how difficult the job is, the amount of risk involved, the lack of job security, and low pay. “The majority of PSWs are women between the ages of 30 and 45 years old,” he says. “This group of females has the most at-risk job in Canada right before industrial miners.” Provincial statistics indicate that workers in long-term care can contend with hazardous materials, falls, being struck by an object, musculoskeletal disorders from handling clients or from other activities, and workplace violence. Lack of recognition as an integral member of the health team is another issue, says Da Silva: “They’re not valued,” he says.

He and other industry members want the province to introduce standard professional certification and regulation for PSWs that would be similar to the certification and regulation of nurses; they say that would help protect job standards and boost pay. 

“Regulatory oversight aims to ensure public safety,” Anna Miller, a spokesperson with the Ontario Ministry of Health, says by email. “The intent of regulation of a profession is not to enhance wages or increase workforce supply. The ministry has developed a strategy to optimize and stabilize Ontario’s PSW workforce.”


Announced this week, that strategy includes $14 million to recruit, retain, and support workers in home, community, and long-term care. The money will be used to support such programs as the fast-track program at Confederation College and a $10.3 million program to recruit recent graduates. The plan also involves a temporary wage boost of up to $3 per hour for support workers to stabilize numbers during the pandemic.

The recruitment funding, though, is not enough, Da Silva says: “To be frank, the numbers currently in training will not be sufficient to deal with this crisis, as we entered the pandemic with a shortage of workers, and those in the field are exhausted.”

At the local level, educators remain optimistic about enrolment levels. Program co-ordinators say their innovations and supports are working. “We can barely keep up to demand for these programs,” says Utley. Since the organization adopted the mobile classroom approach, they have graduated about 200 students, most of whom are working in the industry, according to the organization.

Davies says the numbers are down slightly in the Fanshawe program that began this month — so far, there are roughly 70 enrolled, about six students fewer than last year, but regional enrolment is up. “We’re still getting students trickling in in that final hour,” she said in mid-September, before the program was set to begin. They had anticipated a much lower level of enrolment, she says.

Pottier says Conestoga’s numbers are above the program’s previous average of 100 students and that there are currently about 120 students, in total, at all locations.

Lariviere, one of 10 students enrolled in the SE Elizabeth program that began earlier this year, remains optimistic that it’s a good fit.

Once she completes it, her sponsor, a local long-term-care facility that also employs her part time as a health-support worker, will determine whether she did well enough to be offered an 18-month contract as a PSW. Pledging to stay with the sponsoring company for that period of time is a condition of its support of her training. “It’s like an eight-month interview process,” she says. She’s optimistic about her prospects: “I think I’ve done a great job with working as an HSW.”

Graduating during the COVID-19 pandemic is “a little scary,” she acknowledges in mid-September, “because we do know the second wave is coming.” But she didn’t choose her current career path for the money. “I’m grateful that I’ll be done around the time that the second wave is going to hit,” she says. “I’ll be able to help out more than I am now.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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