‘We shouldn’t have to work 2 or 3 jobs to survive’: Lisa Allen, personal care attendant, St. John

Lisa Allen, age 58

Personal Care Attendant

St. John, N.B.

Yearly salary: $39,053.93 (based on working at 70 per cent of a full-time schedule)


When Lisa Allen was in Grade 5, her parents bought a nursing home. “All 26 patients became my Nanny and Papa,” she says. Her parents would give the staff Christmas Day off and cook a festive dinner for the residents themselves. Lisa remembers the residents watching her and her siblings open presents. By 15, she was working in the home, attending late-night calls and helping with meals.

Lisa went on to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and became a personal care attendant a few years ago when LPNs switched unions, opting to continue paying into the pension she’d built her whole career. She currently works at a geriatric specialty hospital in St. John, N.B., that focuses on restorative care and short stays after surgery.

She helps patients bathe and dress, applies creams to prevent sores, and makes sure they’re using safe techniques to get out of bed. She gradually encourages patients to do more and more for themselves.

The hardest part of her job is the “tough love,” when she has to tell patients that they can’t have meals in their room, that they have to get up and go to the dining room, that they have to do their rehab exercises. Lisa says she is brutally honest with patients and explains that if they don’t engage, they might have to go to a nursing home. That approach “sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t.”

And then there are also the patients who need a mechanical lift to get out of bed, convinced they will never walk again and are headed for a nursing home. Instead, “You actually see them walking to the elevator to go out the door and go home. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Lisa says she makes an effort to learn about her patients’ lives and build relationships. “Lots of people don’t think you should be hugging a patient,” she says. “But they’re seniors and they’re lonely. A hug goes a long way.”

The typical patient-to-care attendant ratio is five to one. But that becomes six or seven to one when her unit is short staffed, which happens four or five times a week, she says, as staffing shortages have worsened since the pandemic began with many choosing a different profession, burning out or retiring.

“We’re burnt out, and tired and fed up.”

Being short-staffed means a weekly shower might get postponed by another week, though patients still have their face, hands and back washed twice daily.

She says staff are frustrated because “there’s just absolutely total disrespect” from her provincial government that “can pay travel care attendants and nurses at triple the rate that we’re making … but won’t pay any kind of increases or retention bonuses to us as staff when we’re burnt out, and tired and fed up,” she says.

“It’s a clear message that your employer and your government don’t care about the people they have that are holding the system together.”

Hiring health-care staff through private agencies to fill gaps in the systems, “creates divisions between the workers within workplaces unnecessarily,” says Naomi Lightman, a sociology professor at Toronto Metropolitan University who researches the living and working conditions for the largely immigrant and largely female care attendant work force. “With widespread workplace shortages, I don’t see why we can’t spend more money to employ permanent staff who are going to provide better consistency of care and have better benefits and employment conditions.”

Lisa is at the highest level of the three-tier pay scale for care attendants in New Brunswick and earns $25.10 an hour. Care attendants new to the profession earn $23.41 an hour, a less than $2 hourly difference between a care attendant who has just graduated and one who has worked a full career.

Lisa, who injured her shoulder and can only work part time since full-time positions would require her to lift patients, says the cost of her rent and groceries has “skyrocketed” and it becomes “harder and harder to make ends meet to pay the bills that you need to pay just to survive.”

“Some other care attendants are going to a food bank … because by the time they pay their bills, their rent and stuff, they don’t have money left,” says Lisa

Her income alone is not enough to support her household, including her husband, daughter and two granddaughters, she says. Her husband’s pension plus her income is how they survive.

Retention and recruiting could be improved by higher pay, Lisa says.

“The government can tell us ‘thank you,’ and that we’re valued, but words are cheap,” she explains. “It doesn’t pay the light bill, at the end of the day … most care attendants shouldn’t have to work two or three jobs to survive.”

Despite the obstacles, Lisa says, “I encourage people that if it’s in your heart to care for others, and you’re thinking about going into the nursing profession, do it. It is a rewarding job.”


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Nicole Naimer


Nicole Naimer is an intern at Healthy Debate and a Health Sciences student at McMaster University.

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