There’s a little-known secret among organizations that support adults with developmental disabilities: not all clients are the same and agencies routinely shop their most challenging clients around.

Bethesda Community Services is known in the sector for taking the absolute hardest cases. Staff are routinely abused and harassed. Yet they have some of the lowest wages among all developmental service workers in the province.

“We work with the heaviest hitters, literally people that no one else will take on. They have behavioural challenges, multiple diagnoses, and histories of incarceration, trauma, or violence. They deserve care, but it can’t come at the expense and health of workers,” explains Heather Francey, a developmental support worker (DSW) with 15 years’ experience and president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 2977. “No worker should leave a shift with bite marks or a concussion but that is happening regularly simply because our agency is not staffing properly.”

Tired of abuse from clients and neglect from management, a supermajority of members from CUPE 2977 – representing more than 250 DSWs, recreation, maintenance, and cleaning staff at Vineland locations of Bethesda Community Services – signed a petition demanding a fair deal. For years workers have left Bethesda Community Services for jobs with higher wages and less abuse. That’s left the agency chronically short staffed with workers often forced into unsafe, 1-on-1 situations with aggressive clients.

“The hypocrisy is almost as bad as the violence. This year, CEO Paul McGowan gleefully accepted a safety award. He knows as well as we do that workers and clients cannot be safe if we don’t staff properly,” said Francey. “That’s what we’re bargaining for. We want our agency to be the kind of place where workers can be safe and proud.”

Representatives from CUPE 2977 entered negotiations in March with a focus on addressing the morale and retention challenges by bringing their wages in line with other agencies. Workers are being forced to take second or third jobs; others are turning to food banks to get by. Despite the pressing need, management is demanding cuts to mental health supports while trying to force more full-time workers to stretch themselves thin working three weekends a month.

75 per cent of members signed the open letter addressed to the Board of Directors which was delivered today in advance of the two sides returning to the table for their final scheduled date of negotiations. This effort comes amidst a roiling sector where developmental service workers across the province have been organizing and demanding better treatment, notably with a month-long strike by neighbouring workers at Community Living Port Colborne-Wainfleet.