The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) held a virtual press conference on Wednesday to make a series of demands on behalf of home care workers. The press conference also allowed a few workers to directly share their personal hardships during the public health crisis.
As of April 9, over 9,000 health care workers had contracted the COVID-19 virus in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The actual number is undoubtedly much higher — and it’s likely impossible to know how many in-home care workers have been affected due to testing challenges and an overall lack of support for non-facility-based caregivers.
The SEIU represents 2 million workers in health care, the public sector and property services across the country. On the call, home care workers shared emotional testimonies, detailing workplace difficulties that included a severe lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), no sick leave and low wages, among other undesirable conditions.
“I work in home care because it’s a gift from God. I have to do this job because someone needs me to care for them,” a Memphis, Tennessee home care worker said. “But despite the crucial role we have in keeping our clients safe from the coronavirus, this is the most inhumane, unsafe and unappreciated line of work.”
More so than attacking their provider organizations, the home care workers spoke out to advocate for additional governmental support.
During the virtual event, one worker said that her colleagues had been making protective masks out of paper towels. Another said she had been making her own hand sanitizer with a mixture of ingredients she bought at the store — paying for supplies herself.
“We have no voice, especially during this crisis,” the worker said. “I have no paid sick time days through the home care agency or my other job. My agency has tried to provide the resources for us as far as PPE, but they can’t seem to obtain any. We have no shields, no gowns, no sanitizers — we don’t even have masks.”
No paid sick leave
In addition to personal hardships, the virtual press conference also highlighted general challenges facing all in-home care providers, including clients refusing visits.
For example, one home care worker described a time when she went into work and her patient told her she shouldn’t be there. She was sick, and the patient could tell.
Even so, the worker felt obligated to go work to take care of her client — and to make enough money to survive.
Along those lines, one of SEIU’s demands was removing the exemption that the Department of Labor (DOL) placed on home care workers, which keeps them from receiving additional workplace benefits included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).
Broadly, the FFCRA grants paid family and sick leave for workers during the coronavirus crisis in the U.S.
Home care industry advocates had vied for agencies that employed either home care or home health workers to be exempt from the act’s benefits in order to ensure that they had enough workers to deploy on a day-to-day basis. If the DOL hadn’t included those workers, there was also concern that smaller, cash-strapped agencies would go under if forced to pay for extra leave.
But that exception backfired for some front-line workers, according to SEIU.
“It’s hard. I wish that they would give us paid sick days, but we don’t get them. We get no time off,” one worker from Richmond, Virginia, said. “And it’s a choice you have to make to live and survive. … We get sick just like everyone else. And home care workers, we take care of seniors and others with disabilities, and we are in high demand, but yet you don’t want to give us anything for what we do? I don’t understand why they forget about us.”
Although they may have an exemption under FFCRA, many home-based care providers have voluntarily implemented comprehensive paid sick leave and emergency leave policies. Others have also launched initiatives that provide bonus pay to workers caring for COVID-19 patients during the public health emergency.
A worker’s point of view
The potential effects of paid leave requirements bestowed upon agencies during the pandemic is a reasonable point of concern. But the workers on the front line — the ones risking their health for the patients — also have reason to feel left behind.
The press conference was led by SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and National Employment Law Project (NELP) staff attorney Nzingha Hooker. It’s goal: to give a voice to those on the front line who feel like their worries have been back-burnered, they said.
Many of those worries were addressed by the home care workers who spoke Wednesday morning.
Apart from working without adequate PPE, highlighted concerns included an inability to collect hazard pay and a universal lack of COVID-19 testing.
“It’s time to bring home care workers in from outside of the laws, protections and shadows,” Henry said. “[We need] to truly value these health care heroes for the valuable role they play in getting everybody the care they need with dignity and respect in the home.”
Home health and home care agencies need to juggle keeping their businesses above water and keeping their workers feeling safe and valued.
The current circumstances make that juggle increasingly harder.
“It’s a very dangerous job,” a worker said. “I’ve said it is my gift from God to do this work, but I still deserve to be respected.”