Workers on the Frontline of a Pandemic: A VAW Perspective of COVID-19

Nicola Holness
June 19, 2020
Categories: Feminism Housing & Shelter 

Working in the Violence Against Women (VAW) sector comes with its share of difficulties, but the onset of a global pandemic has added an additional layer of complexity that has been an on-going adjustment for frontline staff, and has exposed larger systemic issues for supporting vulnerable people. 

Since the emergency order, staff in the sector have been inundated with information about COVID-19 and expected to implement preventative measures to maintain a COVID-free shelter. Physical distancing has been a key component in preventing the spread of the virus and has forced shelters to limit the number of residing residents. Though necessary, the restriction of new intakes contributes to an ongoing challenge for women fleeing violence – not enough shelter space. Prior to COVID-19, VAW shelters were already at capacity with fairly slow discharge rates due to the lack of affordable housing options. Now, due to the virus, women will likely have to endure violent relationships longer, especially during a time when most people are working from home and the opportunity to safely and confidentially access support is limited. 

To try and combat this issue, the government eventually offered funds for the VAW sector to utilize hotel space and increase capacity. While hotels are necessary to serve more women, it requires additional staffing, meal coordination (mainly through caterers), safety considerations and more. The compounding costs to run the hotels have been disheartening to see given the years of advocacy fighting for affordable housing. Ideally those funds should be allocated to affordable housing rather than having to address a temporary problem. 

The cleanliness of shelters is another key component to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In addition to their regular responsibilities, cleaning staff have been asked to increase the frequency of disinfection of high touch surfaces. Cleaning staff have become the most vital of our essential service workers and they do not have the option of working from home. Yet, the cleaning staff, as well as food services staff, are the lowest paid in the shelter system and tend to be racialized workers. This disparity exists in other industries as well such as long-term care homes where Personal Support Workers who are considered highly essential, are paid minimum wages and tend to be Black and racialized women.  

Other essential workers also have anxieties about staying COVID-free. While non-essential workers enjoy the privilege to work from home, shelter staff are still required to be on-site and provide services. Some staff have underlying medical conditions that make them high-risk for contracting the virus. In some parts of the sector staff are hesitant to meet with clients one-on-one in a confined space and, in some instances, are having to work with clients who are nonchalant about spreading or contracting the virus. 

Frontline staff may also be confronted with the frustrations and anxieties of residents. Women who already experience a myriad of barriers are now facing additional shelter limitations and requirements. Staff across the sector must monitor the use of common space and restrict non-essential travel, require residents to wear masks and conduct daily screenings, secure housing with external agencies whose staff are working at a modified capacity, and help with the grand task of occupying children all day. In addition to standard case management duties and trying to secure housing, staff have had to familiarize themselves and assist women with accessing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB). Staff have also supported families to access laptops for children’s school work and connect them to teachers and online tutoring services. 

Despite these nuances, our frontline staff have shown great courage and leadership during these uncertain times. They have stepped up the plate to implement all the necessary precautions to keep the shelter COVID-free while continuing to provide meaningful services to the most vulnerable in our city. With the reopening of services underway, we look forward to working at full capacity supporting women to establish lives free of violence.

By Nicola Holness, Manager for Arise & the December 6th Fund

Image by Andrea Piacquadio