More than three months after a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., became the center of the country’s first coronavirus outbreak, a majority of nursing home workers believe they’re risking their lives on the job and that their employers are not doing enough to protect them from the virus, according to a new union survey.
Most nursing home workers say their employers (76%) and the federal government (80%) are not doing enough to ensure they have access to protective equipment, free COVID-19 testing and paid sick days. And 78% say their “life is at risk every day” at work because of the virus, according to a survey by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which was shared with TIME.
This comes as the pandemic continues to devastate nursing homes and as some states begin to see an uptick in COVID-19 cases as they reopen. There have been more than 43,000 coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities across 40 states as of June 4, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation — accounting for nearly 40% of the country’s coronavirus deaths.
Nursing home workers, who have long faced challenges with low pay, occupational hazards and understaffing, say they feel unprotected and disrespected on the frontlines while caring for people who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Among their main demands since the pandemic swept the country are hazard pay, sick time and more personal protective equipment (PPE). Nursing home residents and their families have also raised concerns about how facilities have responded to the pandemic.
“The worst thing that I get upset about is hearing the word hero, hero, hero being thrown around for us. And no one is treating us as such. We feel disrespected,” Tanya Beckford, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at a nursing home in Newington, Conn., previously told TIME. She says she had been asking her facility for more masks, gloves and gowns, before she positive for COVID-19 in April. The nursing home denied Beckford’s claims.
In May, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began requiring nursing homes to report coronavirus cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as to residents and their families. At the same time, the White House recommended that nursing homes test every resident and employee for COVID-19, but state and industry leaders have said they don’t have the resources to do that — neither enough tests, nor people to administer them.
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In the SEIU survey, 54% of respondents said they currently have enough PPE to safely do their job and have received clear communication from their employer about suspected cases of COVID-19 in their facility. And 69% of respondents said they’re receiving effective training on protecting themselves and their residents from COVID-19.
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry says if only about half of nursing home workers have enough PPE, “I think that’s cause for alarm.”
“That is a tragedy,” Henry tells TIME. “We are never going to get this virus under control if we can’t get PPE to the frontline essential workers, like nursing home workers.”
Nursing home workers who contract COVID-19 have been forced to use sick time or vacation time, or to take unpaid leave, as they recover from the virus. Some workers have lost their jobs. Sixty-four percent of workers who were surveyed said their employer is not providing them with paid sick days if they contract the virus, and 72% said their employer is not providing paid sick time if they have to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems for the long-term care workforce. The median pay for nursing assistants was $29,640 last year, which is just above the national poverty level for a family of four.
A majority of workers (85%) said they would have trouble paying for food or housing if they couldn’t work for two weeks, and 73% said there are not enough staff at their facility to safely care for all residents, according to SEIU survey.
Henry says she’s calling on states and nursing homes to take immediate action to get more PPE and tests to workers, and then to focus on solving the long-term problems within the industry by raising wages and “making these good jobs that people can feed their families on.”
“It is an outrage, from our perspective, that this far into the pandemic, 80% of nursing home workers feel their lives are at risk every day they go to work,” Henry says. “We want every employer to be held accountable, so that we can end the cycle of poverty in our communities and make sure residents and their family members get the care that they deserve.”
The SEIU survey of 2,397 nursing workers across the U.S. was conducted online from May 20 to June 7, using Wufoo by Survey Monkey. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.