EMS medics wearing personal protective equipment check a woman in her apartment for COVID-19 symptoms during a televised Presidential press conference on April 02 in Stamford, Connecticut.
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April 30, 2020 2:21 PM EDT

As House Democrats work to craft their next coronavirus relief package, two members are working to ensure home health care workers are receiving the protections they need as they continue to care for patients during the pandemic.

Reps. Joaquin Castro and Deb Haaland sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday urging the leaders both to explicitly define home health care aides and child caregivers as essential workers in the next relief bill, and to ensure these employees are provided with free personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves, hazard pay, and affordable health care plans that include testing and mental health services.

“It is vital that we invest in home and community-based care infrastructure and that caregivers have the benefits and resources needed to fight COVID-19,” Haaland and Castro wrote to Pelosi and McCarthy in the letter, which was first reported by TIME. “The first three COVID-19 relief bills largely overlooked the needs of caregivers and those whose care needs may be best served in their homes.”

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Governors of some states, like California, have already defined home health care workers as essential workers. But at the federal level, the definition as established under the CARES Act, which President Trump signed into law March 27th, is still relatively vague. In order to ensure these workers get the provisions, Haaland and Castro are calling on Congressional leaders to “adopt an expansive definition of who is an essential worker” that includes home health care aides and childcare workers.

By defining these workers as essential, Castro explained, it would automatically render them eligible for potential government benefits in the next round of legislation.

“When we consider things like hazard pay for essential workers, which I believe that we will, for when we consider issues like family leave and expanded medical leave, those essential workers I believe will benefit most,” Castro said in an interview. “These home health care workers and caregivers have been essential for a long time. But they are even more important during this pandemic.”

Even in states where these workers are deemed essential, advocates say they are not receiving the funds the federal government has allotted for them. The CARES Act allocates $100 billion in taxpayer funds for the wider healthcare industry to combat the coronavirus pandemic. This was followed by an interim funding legislation that included an additional $75 billion, which Trump signed into law April 24th. But the home health care industry has yet to receive anything from these funds, says William Dombi, President of the National Association for Home Care and Hospice.

“Taking congressional action to say, ‘We think the money should go that way’ seems to be what is necessary at this point,” says Dombi. “While we are obviously moving at extreme speed in this pandemic… nothing has happened so far that indicates that these workers have had the respect they really deserve to have.”

In their letter to McCarthy and Pelosi, Castro and Haaland propose that protections for these workers go beyond receiving the funds already allotted and expand the federal infrastructure to help them weather the pandemic’s storm. In addition to advocating for provisions Democrats have long been touting, like the expansion of paid medical leave and affordable childcare, they are proposing grants to community organizations so they can hire more workers, and funding for transition programs for seniors and the disabled to leave institutional settings.

“The gross inequality and fragmented nature of our social safety nets and health care systems is starker than ever, and nowhere is it more glaring than in the lack of support for our nation’s caregivers,” they wrote.

The implementation of the CARES Act has not been without bumps in the road. The Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed to furnish small business with potentially forgivable loans to keep workers on payroll, ran out of money within two weeks, and outrage ensued after it was revealed that some of the funds went to large restaurant chains like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. And while the bill expanded unemployment, millions of Americans have had trouble getting through to government offices to access the benefits.

In part to mitigate further problems as more workers seek access to a safety net that is arguably unequipped for a surge, Haaland and Castro also proposed in their letter to McCarthy and Pelosi that the government create a web portal and app for all essential workers to access and download the necessary resources and determine their eligibility for certain programs and testing. The website would be part of the broader initiative to help federal workers.

Their suggestions, even if backed by a large group of Democrats, are still far from becoming law in a Republican-led Senate. While the letter has forty seven co-sponsors, all are Democrats, even though, according to a senior Castro aide, it was circulated among both parties. Democrats pushed for expanded paid family leave provisions in the second coronavirus relief package, which preceded the CARES Act, only to see them stripped out to ensure its passage. “There is an effort [to help this group] but it’s clearly on one side of the aisle — the Democrats,” says Combi.

Both sides will need to band together for any of these ideas to actually materialize. Castro, for one, remains hopeful it will happen. “I don’t see this as a partisan issue. These people are in every congressional district in the country,” he says. “We should be able to get behind them in a bipartisan way.”

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