PSW temp worker risks her life to help others but barely earns enough to get by

Temporary agency employees have been working through the pandemic so we can stay home. Yet there’s been no increase in oversight for the agencies and companies that employ them. Caryn Ceolin with how COVID-19 has left these workers more vulnerable.

As a personal support worker, Samara risks her own health to care for others.

As a temporary agency worker, she faces low wages, job insecurity, and no benefits or sick pay. How much she’s earning is just enough to cover rent and few other essentials, she told CityNews.

“I don’t know next week do I have [a] job or not? It’s just really frustrating,” Samara, who asked not to be identified over concerns about facing repercussions, explained.

Samara has worked temp jobs in factories, as a stand-in security guard, and now a PSW. For every assignment, the hourly rate paid to her agency can be as much as double her wage.

Five years later, she’s still an assignment employee, without access to basic benefits or ever having seen a raise.

‘There’s never any consequences for the client company’

Deena Ladd, who heads the Toronto-based labour rights group, the Workers’ Action Centre, said Samara’s story is not uncommon for many deployed to the COVID-19 front lines.

As Ladd pointed out, there is no obligation for companies to hire temporary agency workers permanently, and nothing stopping them from paying temps less than their permanent counterparts when they do the same work.

In Ontario, it is the agency that is deemed the employer. As of last month, there were 2,720 temporary employment agencies registered at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Ladd argues companies that hire agency workers should also be responsible for their rights.

“Temp agency workers I think are in an incredibly vulnerable position working through this pandemic, and actually to be honest way before the pandemic.”

Ladd said client companies are still not liable for on-the-job deaths and injuries, despite existing legislation passed by the previous government. CityNews asked the province why Premier Doug Ford has yet to enact Section 83(4) of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour said the agency pays WSIB premiums.

“Until that change happens, client companies are going to continue to use temp agency workers as expendable labour,” Ladd said.

‘These workers are really at the mercy of agencies’

Dr. Amanpreet Brar picked up shifts as a temporary worker in factories before medical school, and said agencies exercise a significant amount of power over workers.

Brar believes factories and warehouses have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 because temps worry about losing their paycheque when getting tested or isolating.

“They really are afraid that after they have waited, sometimes for days, to receive a phone call from [their] agency to get work that if they say no to work, they might not ever be called again by that particular agency,” Brar said.

“Even if they have symptoms but they receive a phone call from their agency, they often end up going to work.”

The consequences of that have been laid bare in places like Peel Region, where a recent study found one in four residents who tested positive continued going into work after developing symptoms.

“Many of these workers have assumed the risk to keep our country and economy moving, and to keep all of us well supplied and safe at home,” Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s medical officer of health, explained.

While the region hasn’t been able to explore the totality of its cases to determine an overall trend in respect to temporary agency workers, Loh said these workers have been identified through outbreak investigations as someone who may have fallen ill, “then subsequently resulted in exposures in multiple workplaces.”

Paid sick days

The province told CityNews temporary assignment employees will be able to use Ontario’s new COVID-19 paid sick days, adding the agency would be the employer.

But in cases where employees are working via different agencies and going to multiple different workplaces, it can be unclear which agency is accountable for the worker, said Brar.

The complex relationship between agencies and client companies, she said, often leaves workers trapped by a system designed to exploit them.

“Nobody really takes accountability for these workers.”

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