Predisposed to a Pandemic: The Nursing Home Aide Edition

A while ago, some asshole with a blog noted that a sane COVID-19 response would have these four economic pillars:

  1. Rent and mortgage suspension, for businesses and residents.
  2. Temporary universal healthcare coverage, including for those who lost their jobs.
  3. Some kind of significant income supplements for households.
  4. Mandatory sick leave, so essential workers wouldn’t feel obligated to work when they are symptomatic.

You’ll be shocked to learn that the reality for nursing home aides doesn’t hew to these principles (boldface mine):

To understand how nursing homes became the source of over one-third of U.S. COVID-19 deaths, you have to look beyond just the vulnerability of the residents and examine how nursing homes pay and manage their employees.

The average nursing aide earns just $14.25 an hour, less than $30,000 a year. Many are women who work at multiple nursing homes to make ends meet. Partly as a result of that, the typical nursing home has staff connections to 15 other facilities – each an opportunity for the coronavirus to spread. That risk is magnified by a reluctance among many nursing aides to take sick days when they are ill, even though federal law currently requires employers to provide paid sick leave for coronavirus-related reasons.

An alarming number of infections in long-term care facilities – nearly half – have been traced to staff who work in multiple health care facilities and who engage in “presenteeism,” meaning they continue to work even after being exposed to or falling ill from COVID-19…

Like about a third of nursing aides, Salma is an immigrant. She often spends 12 hours a day cooking, cleaning and caring for residents’ most intimate needs, such as bathing, dressing, feeding and providing medication.

When Salma fell ill earlier this year, she requested paid sick leave, but her employer refused to provide it. She tried to assert her rights under her state’s paid sick time law, but she said her employer responded by threatening to report her to immigration authorities. When she explained that she had legal status, Salma said, her employer changed tactics and threatened to report her to the Internal Revenue Service because no payroll taxes had been deducted from her wages, as she was paid off the books. Salma was afraid she would lose her job, so she continued to go to work…

In March 2020, Congress passed the nation’s first universal paid sick leave law. This emergency law, which expires at the end of the year, provides most employees in the country with up to 80 hours of paid leave if the worker has been exposed to, is ill from, or is caring for someone infected with COVID-19.

However, a large survey earlier this year showed that many essential, low-wage employees still could not access paid sick leave after the law went into effect. That survey and our research show that these employees tend to either believe they have no right to paid leave or that their employer will retaliate if they try to use it. Many fear they could lose their jobs.

While the authors point out two important steps, educating workers and employers and increased enforcement, there is one obvious missed solution: unions. If this workforce were unionized, workers would have professionals who could handle their complaints and protect them if their employers tried to screw them.

This outcome is the end result of a hollowed out labor movement–and that hollowing out was by design. Now, tens of thousands have died needlessly as a result.

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1 Response to Predisposed to a Pandemic: The Nursing Home Aide Edition

  1. jmagoun says:

    Absolutely. The “hollowing out” of the American labor movement is one of the great untold stories of the later 20th century. And the consequences, such as the ever-increasing inequality gap that among other things is a large factor in Trump’s becoming president, have been dire even before this latest, fatal, example.

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