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The numbers reflect a history of COVID-19-related human loss and operating cost in California nursing homes. 9,716 residents and staff have died from the virus, accounting for one in eight deaths from the pandemic statewide. But there is another story that cannot be told with numbers. It is the story of what it was like to work in the dangerous conditions with the coronavirus: with stress, fear and anguish.
Caring for the elderly and disabled in nursing homes is not a task for everyone. And if there’s one thing people don’t know, it’s how common injuries are. Moving our residents to change them, to transfer them from a bed to a wheelchair, or to bathe them carries a real risk of back injury. Also, it is very dangerous when you work in a hurry. And working in a nursing home is always in a hurry. This is because nursing homes were understaffed even before the pandemic.
The caregivers who partially do the work are mostly women like me: Latina and immigrant women. Nursing home owners have kept wages low by exploiting women and people of color. In the pandemic, these poverty wages were lethal because workers worked multiple jobs to cover their expenses for the month, unknowingly carrying the virus from place to place.
One of the heartbreaking lessons learned in recent years. It is knowing that the residents died without being able to see their children, their relatives and that they died alone, it grieves me a lot!
For many colleagues, the stress, combined with low wages, was too much to bear and already 16,000 California nursing home workers have left their jobs since the pandemic began.
Days ago, I went to the State Capitol with dozens of healthcare workers to pay tribute to the colleagues and residents we lost to the pandemic. Hundreds more of my colleagues rallied across the state with the same message to legislators: Nursing homes are in crisis, and California cannot fix this situation without the involvement of nursing home workers.
We are proposing to the state the creation of a Skilled Nursing Facility Quality Standards Board, a formal structure where workers can dialogue and negotiate with nursing home owners, patient advocates, families and government agencies to create rules that regulate the industry.
It’s important to note two destructive trends in our industry: Nursing home owners who have taken billions from taxpayers intended to improve the industry, but instead lined their pockets. And state regulators who are handing out staffing waivers and essentially giving owners the freedom to evade minimum staffing rules. California must tie public funds to nursing home quality and enforce staff safety standards.
Bottom line: Workers must be respected and valued to do the jobs we love and that are important. Nursing home care needs to improve, and only workers who have lived within this industry can lead the way.
Jesús Figueroa Cacho has been a Certified Nursing Assistant for 25 years.