Chris Judge’s weekend shifts as a developmental support worker at Community Living Port Colborne-Wainfleet are scheduled to run from 7 a.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday. Lately, the sight of his work bag has filled his eight and four-year-old children with anxiety.

“They want to know if I’ll be back on Sunday in time for a bike ride or skating, or if they won’t see me again until Monday,” says Judge. “And I can’t lie to them. I don’t know when I’ll be home. I do know that making that phone call that I’m stuck on shift again, and hearing my kids upset or crying on the other end is absolutely heartbreaking and unfair to workers and our families.”

Judge has worked at Community Living for 15 years. In his first dozen years, he was stuck on shift less than five times. Since the agency’s mismanagement has created an acute staffing crisis, it’s happening twice a month, leaving workers scrambling. Judge has been forced to depend on the kindness of neighbours to look after his kids in a pinch or his wife has been forced to miss her work as a dental assistant at an oral surgery clinic.

Nearly 100 front line developmental service workers from CUPE 2276 have been on strike since Friday, and Judge and his co-workers were joined by supporters at a solidarity rally on Wednesday afternoon. In the absence of these critical and skilled care providers, management has admin staff, office workers, and informational technology workers taking care of residents, including administering out medicine.

“We fill in the blanks so people with disabilities can live fulfilling lives. Sometimes that means helping with personal hygiene and daily living. Sometimes it means incredibly detailed and personalized care and support,” says Judge. “I’m concerned and scared for our residents. I’m worried they’re not getting the kind of attention they need. And I’m angry that management is putting their health at risk instead of investing to create a better workplace and better services.”

A solution, says Judge, will come when management begins to respect workers’ needs. “This work attracts some of the most caring and dedicated people. We don’t do this to get rich, we do it because it’s meaningful for us. But our employer uses that dedication against us. They push us to our limits. They take advantage,” says Judge. “People are made to feel guilty for wanting to go home at the end of a shift when all we want is to do our jobs to the best of our ability and to have a life outside of work.”