Without adequate PPE and protocols, developmental services residences will become the next major sites of COVID-19 cases in Ontario, says CUPE, which represents 8,000 workers at 64 residences across the province.
The union is demanding the provincial government provide proper protections for people with developmental disabilities and the workers who support them, especially in residences where individuals have tested positive for COVID-19.
Developmental services agencies provide 24-hour care and assisted living services to people with developmental disabilities. However, frontline workers report shortages of protective equipment, even in residences with known cases of COVID-19. Six residents died in one Markham facility alone, with almost all residents testing positive.
“This is a difficult time for our members, and for the people we support,” said Joanne Smithers, chair of CUPE’s Developmental Services Sector Coordinating Committee. “Many supported individuals don’t know when they will get to see their families next, and many workers are forced to isolate from their families because they are in workplaces with known COVID-19 cases.
“So we take all these precautions, but our allowance for PPE is just one surgical mask per shift. These are disposable masks not meant to be worn for 8- or 12-hour shifts. They get wet from your breathing, and you’re taking the same mask on and off for any breaks or meals.”
Some developmental services agencies have taken to social media to ask businesses and members of the community for donations of masks and gowns to maintain their supplies of PPE. But in many communities, these efforts haven’t been enough, and workers are coming up with their own solutions.
“In homes with known COVID-19 cases among staff and supported individuals, we have staff wearing rain ponchos from dollar stores and using home-made cloth masks to protect themselves,” said John Halik, a frontline developmental services worker in Durham and President of CUPE 2936. “People are desperate and are waiting for the government to do something.”
On April 28, the provincial government released an action plan for protecting vulnerable Ontarians. It committed to measures to reduce exposure to COVID-19 and prevent the spread of the coronavirus in developmental services sites within 48 hours. But frontline workers say they have yet to see any concrete improvements or changes to their health and safety.
The government’s recent emergency order for congregate care settings does not allow workers to work for another employer in the same sector. However, there is no restriction on rotating staff from residence to residence at one employer’s location.
“These are frontline care workers, battling heroically against this virus, and they are being ignored by this government,” said Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario. “The people in care at these residences and their families do not want to see their homes becoming the next site of major outbreaks. 
“There cannot be an effective plan to flatten the curve of COVID-19 when we leave vulnerable people and workers to fend for themselves against this virus. We are calling on the Ford Conservatives to stop ignoring developmental services, we want them to live up their commitments and put protections in place for these people and these workers.”