‘Poverty-level wages’: California workers fight to reform nursing homes | Nursing

Jesus Figueroa Cacho, a certified nursing assistant of the Sacramento, California area, has worked in the nursing home industry for about 25 years.

She consistently works 16 hour long shifts, 60 to 80 hours per week, often working through breaks and not getting paid overtime because her employer she works night shifts and overtime accrual resets at 1am every day, in the middle of her shifts. Figueroa Cacho said her facility is severely understaffed, often with just two nurses to care for about 50 patients.

“I come home exhausted, I have to drive 40 miles to come to work. This is by choice because I love my residents, I love my work, but I have two hours just to get home, and have very little time to sleep before I have to get right back to work,” said Figueroa Cacho.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, her employer had staffing help from the national guard and staffing agencies, but that contributed to many workers quitting as they were paid much more than permanent staff, who receive just above minimum wage.

“We would like to address poverty level wages. If I don’t work 16-hour shifts, I can’t pay my rent,” said Figueroa Cacho. “I have a son in college. My son was denied last semester because I didn’t have enough funds to pay for his school. This is devastating. We need to be paid for our work.”

Now the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015, which represents 400,000 nursing home and home care workers in California, the largest long-term care union in the US, is advocating for a proposal to create a statewide Quality Standards Board to oversee the state’s nursing home industry in the wake of the pandemic that has decimated staffing in the industry.

The board would include 16 seats, with 10 seats from state agencies, two workers, two seats representing advocates and families, and two representing employers. The board will have authority to set minimum standards for wages, benefits and working conditions for the nursing home industry in California.

It follows similar pushes to establish industry oversight boards with worker representation in the fast-food industry in California and the nail salon industry in New York.

According to April Verrett, president of SEIU Local 2015, the board, which was proposed by the union with the California state senator Henry Stern and assembly member Miguel Santiago, is being advocated for inclusion in the next California state budget, which is currently undergoing hearings in the state legislature before the next fiscal year begins on 1 July.

“Our members are wanting to make sure that we address a longstanding crisis in our state’s nursing homes as it relates to making sure the quality of care is what residents in the facilities deserve, that families can count on, and that we once and for all get to the root cause of why people leave this industry,” said Verrett.

Verrett added: “They want to make sure that as we approach how we fix this crisis, workers have a seat at the table so they’re able to be a part of creating real solutions so we have a long-term care system that provides the highest-quality care for residents, but also ensures that the workforce receives the dignity, respect and the compensation they deserve.”

A poll conducted by the union of workers in the nursing home industry found half of nursing home workers are likely to leave their job within the next year, citing severe staffing shortages and low pay.

In 2020, there was a turnover rate of over 50% in California’s nursing home industry. The skilled nursing industry in the US has lost 241,000 jobs since the pandemic began, 15.2% of the industry’s total workforce,

During the pandemic, nursing homes were among the hardest hit by infections and deaths for residents and workers, accounting for 31% of all Covid deaths in the US as of 30 June 2021.

SEIU Local 2015 holds vigil for nursing home workers who passed away from Covid, in Sacramento.
SEIU Local 2015 holds vigil for nursing home workers who died after contracting Covid, in Sacramento, on 28 March. Photograph: Robert Durell

According to SEIU Local 2015, more than 82,000 nursing home workers in California contracted Covid-19 during the pandemic, and 247 workers died.

“The Quality Standards Board is one of the best things for a long time coming because it gives ordinary workers an opportunity to sit on such a board who has real life experience in what happens in these fields,” said Robert Oriona, a nursing home worker in the Los Angeles, California, area.

Oriona noted his nephew makes more than he does working in fast food, and his employer has offered measly wage increase proposals of 1.5% that will be canceled out when the minimum wage in Los Angeles increases in July 2022 to about $16 an hour. He also frequently experiences verbal and physical abuse from residents who don’t have enough staff to properly care for them, faulty equipment and poor benefits.

“We’re asking for help. Patient minimums, better wages, better benefits, and we need everyone out there to know what goes on in these facilities,” added Oriona.

Charisma Elok, a rehab assistant for seven years at a nursing home in the Los Angeles area, cited that staff at her facility had dwindled during the pandemic, amid Covid outbreaks, low pay and short staffing

She had to fight to be paid after contracting Covid on the job early on in the pandemic, has worked with inadequate personal protective equipment, and her facility often can’t handle the number or type of patients they admit due to understaffing and not having the properly trained staff to care for patients with high needs, such as residents suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

“These nursing homes, they look at patients as dollar signs on their head, because why are you accepting a patient that you cannot provide adequate quality of care for?” said Elok.

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