COVID-19 in Pa.: We have to ensure care for our caregivers | Opinion

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By Chris Woods

It was a horrible day. The headlines screamed, “Stocks Plunge, Rattled by Oil Market and Coronavirus”; “Coronavirus: Italy death toll soars amid travel ban;” “CDC warns against long plane trips and cruises as coronavirus cases mount.”

But America’s most important workers failed to make as many front pages as Wall Street, and the travel and tourism industries.

So far, the data show that those most vulnerable to the coronavirus are the elderly and those with health issues.  Unless we are prepared for even more disturbing headlines from America’s nursing homes, we must take care of our nursing home workers.

Why do millions of Americans work in nursing homes every day?

As the president of the largest healthcare union in Philadelphia, 1199c, I can testify first-hand that my members do this because it is their calling. They love the residents — their patients — and willingly do their best to ensure a high-quality care.

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They clean and disinfect, they serve meals, they change bed clothes, and they change and bath residents. But this does not capture the human side – the connection our members make with patients. The smiles, the pleasantries, the interactions make life easier for both residents and workers. This quality of contact is important. Nearly everything that happens in nursing homes happens because these workers are there.

Yet workers struggle with low wages and terrible or non-existent benefits. For example, the last person who should be in a nursing home is a sick worker, but often these workers have no paid sick leave or time off at all and they agonize whether they should go to work – but their families need the money to pay the most ordinary bills yet the residents need the care and the attention.

But now we confront a whole new issue. The coronavirus outbreak at Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, took the lives of five residents, and more than 70 staff members were forced to call out sick and were quarantined in their homes.

The point is, residents’ lives are at risk because without government aid for lost wages, when workers are in the early stages of coronavirus – when they think that they have just a simple cold – they can’t afford not to go to work.

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Most Americans cannot cover an unexpected emergency of $500, according to a recent survey.  Most cannot afford to go more than a week without pay.  This is even worse for low wage workers.

While the $8.3 billion emergency aid package recently signed by President Donald Trump will help, it did not include sick pay or replacement wages for healthcare workers. I was shocked to find this out along with my members at 1199c.

Forcing workers to choose between safety for residents and themselves and paying their families’ bills is terribly unfair. Believe me, when my members are sick, the last thing they want to do is take a chance at infecting their residents and colleagues.

In Pennsylvania before the coronavirus outbreak, these healthcare workers had not seen a significant pay raise in a long time due in part to low Medicaid reimbursement rates. The low pay, frequent staff shortages and difficult working conditions has meant a high turnover rate.  The result has been poorer quality resident care and low morale for workers.

Now add to that an even larger staff shortage due to coronavirus quarantines, lack of the proper training and protective supplies, and of course the fear, and you have a recipe that may result in many nursing home residents and some healthcare workers dying before their time.

We need to protect our vulnerable nursing home residents from infection, but we can only do that by protecting nursing home employees. The coronavirus is demonstrating how important frontline healthcare workers are.

We need to have a frank discussion as a state and county about how we treat these workers. Will Pennsylvania and America provide Care for the Caregivers at this most important time?

My organization, Healthcare Workers Union 1199C, strongly urges Gov. Tom Wolf and the US Congress to allocate funds to raise nursing home workers’ wages, provide paid sick leave and decent healthcare to union and non-union nursing home workers alike.

We can only protect Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable populations by also protecting their caregivers and providing for their fundamental needs in this time of global crisis.

Chris Woods is the the president of the National Union of Hospital & Health Care Employees, District 1199C, AFSCME, AFL-CIO.