Yetta Timothy, a 27-year veteran certified nursing assistant, speaks on the Capitol steps at a rally to increase nursing home staffing on March 26, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
By Keshia Williams
As a nursing home certified nursing assistant, I have witnessed, first-hand, the devastation from COVID-19, and also the failures of our long term system that brought us here.
Caregivers have feared for our health, isolated from our families. We have worked double shifts to cover the schedule to make sure our residents had someone to bathe and feed them. And we have sat with residents as they passed when their own families had to be kept away.
But COVID-19 was not the beginning of this crisis. For decades we watched as companies cut staffing, forcing caregivers to do more and more with less and less.
The work has become overwhelming, because you know you can’t give your residents the care they need and deserve. Showers and bathing are missed. Meals are rushed. Every night you go home wondering if Mr. Smith got to watch his favorite program, or Mrs. Jones had her fingernails trimmed.
Did they get to tell anyone about their family? Did they have any meaningful human connection? Depression and isolation can be as harmful as physical trauma, and our residents suffer. At the same time, the physical and emotional exhaustion for the workforce is too much, and even the most compassionate caregivers leave the job because they simply can’t do it anymore, making the staffing crisis even worse.
As union members, my coworkers and I, and thousands of others across the state, have been protected as we sound the alarm on conditions and came together to demand improvements, both from our employers and elected leaders in Harrisburg, but it never seemed to be a high enough priority.
Everyone knew nursing home conditions needed to improve, but few were joining us in trying to fix the broken system.
That is finally starting to change. In June, workers lobbied for, and received, over $200 million in COVID relief funds to be budgeted for nursing home staffing and bedside care. Through our union contract negotiations we demanded accountability from our employers to put that money where it was intended – staffing.
On July 21, the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced a first set of nursing home regulation reforms. This first step will increase the minimum staffing standard statewide to 4.1 hours of care per day per resident – that is the minimum amount that elder care experts recommend. If passed, Pennsylvania will be the first state to have this standard, which demonstrates the Commonwealth’s commitment to caring for our aging population.
All of this is cause to celebrate, but we are far from the sustainable reform that’s needed. The first hurdle is getting the 4.1 nursing home regulations through the public comment period, which ends August 30th. We all have a loved one – or know someone who has a loved one – who has spent time in a nursing home.
When there is enough staff to take care of physical and emotional needs, without being rushed, without feeling like it’s an assembly line, it makes all the difference for quality of life.
We must get nursing home reform across the finish line. You can submit your support for better nursing home staffing at BetterStaffingNow.com.
Keshia Williams is a certified nursing assistant from Scranton and a member of the executive board of SEIU Healthcare.
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