Kimberly Lopez (MA ’13, PhD ’18) can point to the moment she knew her purpose, and the direction for her career.
As an award-winning scholar in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences who researches the lives of personal care workers, COVID-19 highlighted
the desperate situation in long-term care homes but that’s not what sparked her determination to bring this work out of the shadows.
Lopez’s moment of clarity happened while writing her own family story during her studies at Waterloo: “By writing through my mom’s migration story, a story that reflects the stories of so many Othered women, I not only found purposeful work but a research area that I could connect to at a much deeper embodied level with broad social impact,” Lopez said.
Her mother Josefa grew up in the Philippines and migrated to Canada in 1976 where she found a minimum wage job as a personal support worker (PSW) in a Scarborough, Ont. long-term care home for $2.65 per hour.
“I observed a single mother who juggled multiple caring roles, both personally and professionally,” Lopez wrote in her PhD dissertation. “I learned that caring takes its toll and that the physical and mental wear-and-tear becomes normalized and accepted as conditions of employment.”
Inspired by her mother’s long career, Lopez, who recently received an Emerging Scholar Award, is exploring the largely invisible, but critical, work done by PSWs. Her research examines the powerful ways that racism, sexism and class intersect to affect care workers – many of whom, like her mother was, are women of colour new to Canada.
My mother and I have always done everything in partnership. I look at where I am today and I know I wouldn’t be here without her. Dedicating my career to deepening understanding of care work is the least I can do.
For decades, there have been recommendations from public inquiries, independent reviews and regulatory bodies to increase staffing in Ontario’s long-term care homes. But many people didn’t understand the desperate situation in the sector until COVID-19 hit. At the time of writing, 1,897 residents and eight staff members in Ontario’s nursing homes have died.
Lopez points out that the pandemic highlighted how care workers who feed, bathe, toilet and support older adults in long-term care receive less support than workers in the better-funded and prioritized areas of health care, like acute-care hospitals. PSWs worked in long-term care homes without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) during COVID-19 outbreaks, while hospitals increased PPE stockpiles with government support.
The fact so many PSWs have to work in multiple nursing homes to make a living wage was partly to blame for the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Ontario’s nursing homes. Lopez recalls her own mother working 2.5 jobs while going to school to upgrade her skills. Childhood memories of reading and doing crafts in nursing stations and lobbies when her mother couldn’t get childcare, taught Lopez that her own family’s experiences were part of a larger struggle for many racialized women struggling to balance work and family responsibilities on a low income.
Lopez, who recently gave birth to her first child, says her mother retired when she was 72 and is now supporting her as she navigates her career and family responsibilities. “My mother and I have always done everything in partnership,” says Lopez. “I look at where I am today and I know I wouldn’t be here without her. Dedicating my career to deepening understanding of care work is the least
I can do.”
Future-Ready Talent Framework
Kimberly Lopez has had an impact beyond the academic environment, playing a significant role in transforming care practices in long-term care homes in Ontario.