Jennifer Washington acknowledges being scared at first, not knowing what to expect when COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, first began its rampage across the United States, prompting lockdowns across the nation that shuttered non-essential businesses, schools and workspaces.
The 43-year-old mother of two, who lives in Oakland, California, is at-risk of becoming severely ill if she contracts COVID-19; she is both diabetic and battling kidney disease, which only heightened that anxiety.
Washington is also a home care nursing provider, an essential health care worker that cares for three clients who are also at risk when it comes to the virus.
“I had to make that tough decision, and ultimately, I went to work. I think I took a couple of days off, initially, but then it was like my clients needed me,” Washington told ESSENCE in a phone conversation earlier this week. “[My clients] didn’t have any other help, so I had to make a decision to go and help and put my own fears or needs aside and be there for the client.”
Washington likes to treat her clients as if they are her parents. And for her parents, she would want someone to go the extra mile for them if she couldn’t physically be there. She recalls when the lockdown first happened, and she was still deciding whether or not she should show up for work, one of her clients did not have food in her home, nor did the client have access to money at that moment. Washington took it upon herself to take money out of her own pocket to ensure the client had groceries, at least for a week or two, as guidelines were still being hashed out and as she made up her own mind.
In a sense, that situation helped her make up her mind.
“That had me scared. What will my clients do if I didn’t show up every day? And so, I have to go. I have to be there,” she said, telling ESSENCE that she prefers to take on the risk herself while being careful not to endanger any of her clients while moving between them.
But she is also, in a sense, going into battle with an invisible enemy unarmed. She told ESSENCE that she has not had access to proper materials, such as desperately needed personal protective equipment (PPE). She has had to provide her own materials and has now resorted to reusable masks that she could wash.
“I don’t know if [we’re considered] frontline workers because no one is there to make sure we have the things that we need,” she said.
These are only some of the problems that members of SEIU Local 2015, which represents some 400,000 home care and nursing home workers throughout California has faced as the nation as a whole continues to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Carmen Roberts, a home care provider for about 15 years, and a regional vice president within SEIU Local 2015, also names health as her primary concern.
Roberts, who describes herself as a “young lady in her 70s,” is currently one of the caregivers for her 94-year-old aunt.
“[Home care workers] take care of the most vulnerable in our society, the aged and the infirmed. So, my first concern is that I’m healthy and that I’m able to take care of my consumer, and not spread the virus to her,” she told ESSENCE. “It’s on my mind constantly to be sure that I take care of myself so that I don’t transmit the virus to her.”
Roberts also noted that PPE, or the lack thereof, was a huge problem for home care workers, especially, and something that the union has actively been trying to ensure its members have access to.
“PPEs is the responsibility of the employer…The Public Authority is the employer on record for all IHSS Home Care Workers in California. The name for the Public Authority in Los Angeles County is PASC,” Roberts said, adding that there has not been a distribution of full PPE – i.e. mask, gloves and sanitizers, since late February.
“I’ve gone to a couple of their distributions in March, and they had just gloves and sanitizers. And last weekend they just had sanitizers. It’s not right and it’s not enough,” she added. “Our members are on the frontline every day and we deserve to be able to have the equipment that’s going to make us safe and allow us to be able to take care of our clients.”
The union has been actively working to ensure that the voices of its members are heard and pushing for them to be provided the equipment that they so desperately need. But with the widely-reported shortage of PPE, it sometimes feels as if these equally essential homecare workers are often overlooked.
“It’s been all over the news during this pandemic, but you hear about doctors and nurses in hospitals that don’t have [PPE] but if they don’t have it, what about the home care workers, who are continuing to go to work every day, going into people’s homes to care for them? They don’t have the PPE that they need either,” April Verrett, the president of SEIU Local 2015 told ESSENCE. “Nursing homes, it’s a setting that has more deaths. A large percentage of the COVID-related deaths are associated with nursing homes…and it’s a fight every single day for workers in those facilities to have the PPE that they need.”
“In some ways, these workers are the forgotten part of our healthcare system,” she added.
And the homecare workers are forgotten in more ways than one.
For all the work that home care workers like Washington and Roberts put in, and for all the sacrifices they are currently making in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, home care workers are also some of the most underpaid workers, even among what one could identify as direct care workers.
A 2020 report by PHI, a nonprofit that works to transform eldercare and disability services, notes that the median wage for all direct care workers is about $12.27 per hour, and because of high rates of part-time employment as well as these low wages, the median annual earnings are just around $20,200.
Home care workers, on average, earn the least, at $11.52 per hour or $16,200 per year.
For Washington this work is her primary source of income, so as much as she fears for her health and for her clients, there is also a real sense of urgency for her to turn up every day, despite the dangers she faces.
“Rent has to still be paid, bills have to get paid, and we only get like eight hours a month for sick pay,” she pointed out.
“I really think we don’t get paid enough for what we do. I think we’re totally underpaid and sometimes overworked,” Washington added.
Verrett called for more investment into the workforce, and for the long-term care system to be one that also values workers so that it can truly meet the needs of the elderly and individuals with disabilities.
“’Homecare worker’ is the fastest-growing job classification in the country, but it’s also amongst the lowest paid, and it’s predominantly women of color. This goes back to history, where home care workers historically were domestic workers, which we all know before that they were slaves,” Verrett said. “And so, we believe that part of the reason that the wages for this workforce are so low is that it is connected to structural racism and centuries of divestment in our communities, and the disenfranchisement and the exploitation of women of color, of Black women.”
According to the same PHI report, the direct care workforce has nearly doubled in the past decade, going from 2.9 million workers in 2008 to almost 4.5 million workers in 2018. In the next 10 years, it is expected to see an additional 1.3 million new positions. Currently, the majority of direct care workers, about 59 percent, are people of color, 30 percent of whom are Black and 18 percent who are Latino (of any race.)
But of course, the SEIU members are not just healthcare worker bees, they are people leading whole lives, and the impact that the coronavirus has had not only affects them professionally and exposes the glaring disparities they face on the job, it also further highlights the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on communities of color.
Markesha Brooks, who works in the dining division of a nursing home notes that her workplace, which she declined to name, has been very good about ensuring that workers have everything they need. There has been no shortage of PPE, workers haven’t had to fill in extra shifts and have not been overworked, or had hours cut.
Still, she has to be very mindful, to ensure that she is keeping herself healthy, not only for the residents in the home, who are at higher risk as seniors but also for her family. The 34-year-old has a 17-year-old daughter with asthma, who is terrified of contracting the virus.
However, she has noticed a shortage of supplies when she goes to the grocery store in her hometown of East Oakland, a shortage that she hasn’t noticed where her mother lives in Piedmont.
At least twice, Brooks could not find what she needed for her family and ended up having to drive 45 minutes away from her house in order to shop.
“My neighborhood it’s mostly black and brown, and [my mom] lives in an area where they’re more [diverse]. And there’s a lot of homeowners over there,” she said. “The stores are bigger where my mom lives and they’re smaller where I live, but the community is a lot bigger.”
Brooks has the ability to drive to the next store that’s some 20 to 45 minutes away, but a lot of people also don’t have cars and can’t get to the store as easily.
“What do they do, what resources do they have to fall on if they needed something?” she said. “People are scared of getting on the buses. The buses are running on a Sunday schedule.”
Issues like these are also at the top of Verrett’s mind, as the union works towards finding long-term solutions to help its members.
“I worry about the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on communities of color,” Verrett said. “What’s our country’s response going to be? Are we going to take an approach to come out of this recession that we need austerity, or are we going to turn the page and really look to a recovery that invest in our communities, that really takes a hard look at all of the deficiencies and the problems with the structure of this country that have created the conditions for this pandemic to ravage our communities. Are we going to fix those? So that’s where my big concern is. It’s, yes, we have to manage this crisis, but how do we turn the page to fix some things in this country that desperately need fixing.”
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