Alberta disability workers hopeful with new minister at the helm

By Catherine Griwkowsky October 26, 2022

Eight months into the Essential But Forgotten Campaign, community disability workers are hopeful new Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jeremy Nixon will take action on long-standing calls for raises in the sector.

Dale Cena, a disability worker who works with Calgary SCOPE Society and the Alberta Disability Workers Association launched the Essential But Forgotten Campaign, pushing for meetings with MLAs from both sides of the aisle, ministers and the premier in an attempt to get a raise for workers.

The sector is currently facing a 37 per cent turnover rate.

“I’ve never seen such hardship in our sector as it is today,” Cena said. “Even the individuals who receive care, we’re noticing a lot of them isolating in their rooms, because there’s a transition of new staff, new faces coming into their homes every day.”

According to Dale Cena of the Calgary SCOPE Society and the Alberta Disability Workers Association, disability workers were initially left off the list of essential workers eligible for government support in 2021, but eventually qualified for a one-time $1,200 critical worker benefit. (Supplied)

The non-unionized sector last saw a wage increase in 2014 under former premier Alison Redford and now averages $18.76 per hour. Cost of living has increased by 15 per cent in that time, while the average hourly wage across the country grew by 27 per cent. Cena said advocates are asking for a 25 per cent increase in wages.

Cena said most employees have to cover their own cost of car insurance and gas to drive clients to appointments, and as inflationary pressures mount, many are leaving the sector.

According to Cena, in 2021 disability workers were initially left off the list of essential workers eligible for government support, but eventually qualified for a one-time $1,200 critical worker benefit.

“Disability workers weren’t able to go home to their families,” Cena said. “They had to work 24 hours a day, around the clock, until that isolation period was broken and they were able to go home.”

Disability workers care for people from youth to adults who may be diagnosed with conditions such as autism, PTSD, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and in many cases have dual diagnoses. Cena said Covid has worsened the pressures on mental health and he worries that without community support, more people will end up in hospital.

“Without support workers, the hospital beds are going to [continue] to be over capacity,” Cena said. “It’s just going to break the system even further.”

Prior to his appointment as seniors, community and social services minister, Nixon served as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of community and social services for civil society. Nixon represents Calgary–Klein, the riding where Calgary SCOPE Society is located.

“As the new minister of seniors, community and social services, I understand our non-profit sector workers are essential to our disability community,” Nixon said in a statement to AB Today.

“Alberta’s government will continue working with the disability services sector as we provided a grant to the Alberta Council for Disability Services to develop a recruitment and retention strategy. I’m looking forward to reading that report and getting up to speed.”

In March, the Alberta Council of Disability Services (ACDS) released a report titled “The Perfect Storm: Workforce Challenges and Escalating Costs in Community Disability Services” that found 54 per cent of workers made less than $20 per hour, burnout is prevalent, federal subsidies are ending and inflation neared 30-year highs in the first quarter of the year.

On an organizational level, 37 per cent said services are at “high risk” in the next one to three years of unfunded administrative and indirect costs, while another 31 per cent said there is a moderate risk. Sixty-two per cent of service providers budgeted for deficits in the 2022-23 fiscal year.

The ACDS was also awarded a provincial grant to craft a recruitment and retention strategy.