Lily, personal support worker

"For immigrants who are here working without status, it is very challenging to get up every day, go to work, and remain sane"

Lily’s story

My name is Lily. I’m a personal support worker. I work in a retirement home.

I like the fast pace. I like the residents. They have all the stories. So when they tell me about their aches and pains, I’m like, okay, that will be me in a few years.

I just like my job. 

So let me explain how I can be an essential healthcare worker and be undocumented. 

When I came to Canada in 2014, it was under the live-in caregiver program. When you came under that program, it was supposed to be sponsorship by a Canadian family for two years of work, and then you could apply for your permanent residence. My client died before that happened. As soon as he died, I had to leave.

I had to go back home, apply from there, and then come back. When I came back with that sponsor, they had changed their minds because it took like six months. So by the time I got here, I was unemployed. No home, no job.

People were desperate for PSWs, desperate.

Now, I had all the qualifications as a PSW. Remember, I had to get it to work here anyways. I just started looking and calling and emailing my resumé, updated everything. And I started getting jobs. 

I’m a personal support worker and I assist the residents in the nursing home with all activities of daily living. That means personal care, reminders about medication, helping them in the dining room. Sometimes you have to cut their food up. Sometimes you have to walk with them in the hallway for exercise. Sometimes you have to get them out of a spiral because a lot of residents in long-term care have mental illnesses, they have other disabilities. You just need to help them calm down a lot.

It’s a combination of things to help the residents, basically. 

Long-term care. During the pandemic, it was like a rollercoaster. At the beginning we didn’t know what was going on, right? So it was one day we went to work, it was normal. The next day, we had to wear masks. We had different protocols about what we had to wear, what we had to sanitize after every change.

And then a lot of people who were getting COVID were isolated, so the job changed from people coming into the dining room to eat to tray service for every single room. It was different for the residents as well, because they couldn’t leave their rooms. For them, it was torturous.

The most challenging part of my job was not the job itself, but getting vaccinated. They were asking for proof of vaccination and I didn’t have it. For somebody like me, with no status in Canada, it was a problem to get vaccinated because we have no OHIP cards, right?

So we have no healthcare. So we actually had to push back. To get vaccinated. I mean, come on. It’s a pandemic. It doesn’t care if we have status here. We live here, we work here, and we just — we actually had to fight to get vaccinated. 

I became undocumented January of 2020. COVID started later that same year.

So my status changed, but I never stopped working. They always need PSWs, always. 

When a lot of the residents started passing away because of COVID, when the families couldn’t come see them, they had to look at them through the windows. This was in the heart of the pandemic. That was hard to look at.

A lot of  the residents who passed away, their last moments were spent online. A lot of times the families never saw them before they passed away. That was horrific.

But then you can’t really argue with the protocols because everybody was panicking at that time, right? From the government to the managers at the home, I mean everybody. So I guess they thought it was the best thing, but I didn’t agree with that at all. At all.

People dying, they’re supposed to have a little dignity in the end. Something better should have been done. 

For immigrants who are here working without status, it is very challenging to get up every day, go to work, and remain sane. Okay? It was a whole depression. It was the frustration of everything. Every day, you would have to get up and go to work because a lot of people, because of the vaccination rules, had left! They didn’t want to be vaccinated.

So your work would be doubled because, whereas before you would have like six or seven residents, now you have 14. You had to make sure they ate, were washed, and you’re dealing with all your personal stuff too.

It’s not only me affected, not only healthcare workers, but refugees, farm workers, students. We are here already. We work, we pay taxes. We are making a contribution to your society. We are taking care of your elderly people, and yet you just discard us. Like if we are actually nobodies.

We worked through the pandemic. We still have to be masked and gloved and we have to show proof of vaccination for jobs, just like every other Canadian here. Why is it that we have no status?

We feel like we’re criminals when we actually live in a healthy country. You know, we need status for all of us. That is what’s gonna change everything.

I think a lot of Canadians are blind, basically, because they don’t understand what status — even when we say we want status for all of us, a lot of the times after our videos are put online, they have some really nasty comments: “Send them back” and “We have no jobs here for everybody.”

We have to deal with that and sometimes in our faces too. We come to Canada to work, we are looking after their families, and then they leave these comments like it’s fine to say things like that.

I like to read, so I’m always researching how and why. Just to try to not give up on this because I came here with — I promised my children two years away. It’s been eight years now. Everybody’s grown up.

I’m still here fighting for permanent status that I should have been given. I lost it. Not through fault of my own. Right? Yeah.

A special note of thanks from Healthcare Salute

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers from across Canada have participated in our research on “COVID-19-Related Stress, Moral Injury and Minority Stress in Healthcare Workers and Public Safety Personnel in Canada.” Their struggles, heartbreak, courage, and resilience have inspired and moved us, and formed the bedrock of our research for this project. We are deeply grateful and committed to sharing their experiences.

We would also like to express our heartfelt thanks to our funders, the Public Health Agency of Canada, for giving us the opportunity and the autonomy to share our research with the larger Canadian audience without bias or restriction. This work would not have been possible without their generous and arms-length funding support. We also wish to thank our collaborators and supporters — McMaster University, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Homewood Health, and Homewood Research Institute.

After viewing, visit “Applying cultural competency in practice,” an education module for mental health providers and peer supporters.