Some nursing homes get help with viruses but don’t pay infected workers

Renee Morgan, a cleaning lady at a nursing home in Saint-Louis, caught Covid-19 in late April and considered herself lucky. His case was mild.

His quarantine was not. Morgan, 57, was stunned to learn that her employer, Blue Circle Rehab and Nursing, would not pay her sick pay while she was away. She has had to figure out how to cover her bills while she waits for the negative test results she needs to return to work.

“We are here to take care of someone’s grandmother. We’re front-line workers too, ”said Morgan, who has worked at the facility for 19 years. She earns just over $ 10 an hour plus a week of paid vacation each year – time that she has already used up. She is now in her third week without pay. “It hurts so much because it’s not right.”

Many nursing home workers across the country are losing their pay after catching Covid-19 or have been forced to self-quarantine, according to union officials, nursing home operators and workers. This is an undesirable development for people earning low wages in some of the country’s most infected workplaces. Long-term care facilities have been linked to at least 200,000 infections and more than 39,000 deaths, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis data available for 39 states.

Meanwhile, some nursing home operators who do not pay sick workers have benefited from millions of dollars in taxpayer assistance. Government officials have placed few conditions on how these funds – which are part of a $ 175 billion initiative to help healthcare providers cover costs associated with the pandemic – are to be spent. And recent federal legislation requiring sick pay for many workers affected by Covid contained a healthcare exemption that some nursing homes quickly used.

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“Workers have suffered the brunt of this situation,” said US Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois. She proposed legislation to protect nursing home workers, including the requirement of two weeks paid sick leave. “Their work is not valued enough and these working conditions make it very difficult for them to do their job.

Dangerous inducement

In the absence of universal tests for Covid-19, federal guidelines call on workers in sick nursing homes not to work until they no longer have symptoms – no fever, no cough – during 72 hours before returning to work. Cutting their wages is a dangerous incentive to return to work sooner, when they can still be contagious.

Licensed practical nurses, the most common workers in nursing homes, earn a median wage of $ 13.38 an hour, according to a 2019 study by PHI, a Bronx-based nonprofit that advocates for better jobs for caregivers. That’s less than half the average hourly wage in the United States for workers in all industries, according to federal data. Many licensed practical nurses do not have enough savings to give up weeks of income.

“Many of these workers are well below the poverty line,” said Charlene Harrington, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing. “They have families to support, so they can’t afford to take time off. “

Some operators support sick workers. The Grand Healthcare System, for example, estimates it has paid Covid sick leave to 250 employees, or about 10% of the workforce at its 16 nursing homes in New York City, according to Bruce Gendron, vice president of New York City. company labor relations.

Several operators who did not provide paid time off, including the owners of Blue Circle Rehab in St. Louis, which employs Renee Morgan, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The handful of those who responded said they were devastated by the coronavirus.

“Without the injection of federal dollars, our business would be insolvent,” said Andrew Weisman, president and CEO of NuVision Management, which operates six nursing homes in Florida and one in New Jersey. NuVision has received $ 4.8 million in federal health care assistance, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Cost increase

Workers at at least one NuVision facility, the Tamarac health and rehabilitation center near Miami, have been quarantined without pay after contracting the virus. The center, which normally houses 100 to 110 patients, now has around 60, Weisman said, while other NuVision homes have seen occupancy rates drop 25 to 50 percent. Meanwhile, costs are rising. NuVision spent $ 250,000 more than usual over the past two months on protective gear, including masks, he said.

Weisman said the company recently received more government aid – a forgivable loan from the Small business management in an amount he refused to disclose – which will allow him to compensate staff members who are absent from work due to Covid-19. “These are employees who are close to our hearts,” he said. “We tried very hard to keep them whole.” However, the company will not be able to retroactively pay workers for the missed time, he said.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which the president Donald trump signed in March, requires employers to grant two weeks of paid leave to workers who are forced into quarantine because of Covid-19. The government covers the cost for businesses with fewer than 500 employees through tax credits.

But wary of staff shortages, Congress drafted a law to allow health care providers to declare themselves exempt from the paid leave requirement, and the US Department of Labor has determined that nursing homes would be eligible for it. the exemption.

Among health workers, those in nursing homes may be the hardest hit by exclusion.

“These workers tend to have the least power,” said Hina Shah, associate professor of law at Golden Gate University and director of the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic. “They are low-paid workers, they are often immigrant women.”

In Illinois, where unionized workers threatened to strike at 64 sites in May, they received only a relatively modest concession: five additional days of paid sick leave, not enough to cover a typical Covid quarantine -19.

‘Really stressful’

Timothy Showman, a 20-year-old housekeeper who earns $ 8.70 an hour working six days a week at a retirement home in Geneva, Ohio, had to give up two weeks of pay. In early April, after being exposed to a resident who tested positive for the virus, a supervisor told Showman not to work – without pay – for the next 14 days. The loss of nearly $ 800 was “really stressful,” said Showman, who tested negative for the virus. (Showman provided an email from his employer verifying his account, but asked that his company not be named for fear of reprisal.)

The federal government, meanwhile, has refused to condition the billions of dollars in coronavirus aid it has provided to healthcare providers. When authorities disbursed the first funds in April, about $ 2.6 billion went to nursing homes. “There are no conditions attached” Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said on April 7. “The health care providers who receive these dollars can basically spend it as they see fit.”

When the Trump administration handed over an additional $ 4.9 billion to the country’s 15,000 nursing homes on May 22, it only demanded that beneficiaries agree to use the money “to prevent, prepare and respond to the coronavirus ”, according to the terms and conditions published by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The conditions specifically allowed beneficiaries to make up for lost income due to the pandemic.

The bailouts have left industry watchdogs uneasy. “It’s about preserving the profits of nursing homes,” said Brian Lee, executive director of Austin-based Families for Better Care. “Some of this money should be used to keep front-line employees safe. “

Palm Garden Healthcare operates 14 nursing homes in Florida with nearly 2,000 beds. The chain’s houses received more than $ 4 million from the federal government in April, and they are expected to receive an additional $ 5.5 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Like many nursing home chains, Palm Garden offers workers a number of paid holidays, or PTOs, in addition to their hourly wages. For example, a worker on the job for one to two years can accumulate up to 6.5 hours of PTO over a two-week pay period, according to union officials. Workers can potentially cash in on vacation time or use it when they are sick.

Palm Garden told workers the same policies apply during the pandemic: “Team members who are quarantined will be required to follow our policy and use the PTO when away for some reason. reason whatsoever, ”wrote Rita Donovan, vice president of human resources at Palm Garden. resources, in an April email to union representatives. Donovan suggested in this post that workers affected by Covid who have used up their accumulated leave could use the time donated by their co-workers or borrow from the PTO they earn in the future.

Workers who have already cleared their PTO accounts question the fairness of this policy. A housekeeper, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, tested positive in early April after cleaning the bedroom of an infected resident. To keep her $ 10 an hour paycheck ahead, she used up over 70 hours of PTO, leaving her little leeway to take time off this year. “I got the disease while working there, so they should pay me for it,” she said.

Palm Garden executives did not respond to numerous interview requests.

Advocates say workers shouldn’t have to shoulder the cost of going to work in particularly risky places during a pandemic. “It’s not a cold they caught in the community,” said Kezia Scales, director of policy research at PHI, the nonprofit that works on behalf of caregivers. “They get infected because of these risks. They should be supported to get better without suffering a big financial blow. “

To contact the reporter on this story:
Benjamin elgin in San Francisco at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
John Voskuhl to [email protected]

Flynn McRoberts

© 2020 Bloomberg LP All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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