NEW YORK, N.Y.—For home-health attendants, the COVID-19 epidemic has added danger to an already grueling job. Workers doing 24-hour shifts for 13 hours pay say they now have to contend with the risk of getting exposed to the virus—while receiving little or no protective gear from their employers.
“I was sick with COVID-19 for a month,” attendant Yolanda Castillo, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, told a small rally organized by the Ain’t I A Woman Campaign outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s offices in midtown Manhattan July 8. While she was out sick, the patient she was caring for died of the virus, she added.
“The agencies provide no protection,” she said. “How can we protect ourselves when we work with patients, with no personal protective equipment?”
The rally, limited to about 25 people to maintain social distancing, marked the delivery of a letter demanding that Gov. Cuomo order all home-care agencies and health-insurance companies to take measures to protect the attendants from the virus. The five measures it demands include providing sufficient protective equipment such as masks and disinfectant sprays; recognizing home attendants as essential health-care workers; enabling attendants who turn down work because of health concerns to receive unemployment benefits; and ending 24-hour workdays “immediately.” If the home attendants would prefer to stay for 24-hour shifts rather than risk commuting, it says, they should be paid for the full 24 hours.
About 700 attendants from about 60 home-care agencies signed the letter.
Though there are no definitive figures, at least two home health attendants have died from the virus, says JoAnn Lum of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops: Ramona de la Cruz, on July 6, and another woman, in May.
“Governor Cuomo, how can you stand idly by when these are essential workers?” Lum told the rally. “Both of these women worked years of 24-hour shifts.”
Cuomo issued an executive order in April requiring essential workers to wear face masks on the job, but Lum said he has been “allowing the agencies to get away without giving any protective supplies.”
If the governor doesn’t respond within two weeks, she added, “we’re going to expose all the agencies that violate your executive order.”
The governor’s press office did not respond to a request for comment from LaborPress.
“It’s surprising how many [agencies] don’t give any [protective equipment],” Lum told LaborPress after the rally. “The ones who do, it’s shameful how much.” She said some provide only “a handful” of masks and gloves that’s supposed to be enough for a month, while others give a thin piece of cloth as a facial covering.
Attendants are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, she said, because their bodies’ resistance to disease gets worn down by years of working 24-hour shifts, They’re legally supposed to sleep during the 11 hours they’re not paid for, but it’s regularly interrupted by having to take care of the patient.
“Nobody seems to keep track” of how many attendants have gotten sick with COVID-19, or of how many attendants or patients have died from it, she added.
If they turn down an assignment out of concerns about getting infected, Lum said, they are not eligible for unemployment benefits. They are considered to have quit their jobs, an Ain’t I A Woman spokesperson explained, or the agency will keep them on the books but not give them any work.
If they do get sick, said Lum, paid sick leave is patchwork among local governments and agencies. Attendants unemployed for reason of illness are eligible for unemployment benefits, but through the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for freelancers and gig-economy workers, which is more complicated to apply for than regular state benefits.
“These are women taking care of our most vulnerable,” Sonia Osorio, president of the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women, told the rally. She appealed to Cuomo “to use his power” over the agencies, “who the state pays” through Medicaid.