SEIU Healthcare nursing home workers demand protections, paid leave as COVID-19 sweeps through facilities

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NURSING ASSISTANT MONICA MONDAINE and other workers at Royal Oak Nursing & Rehabilitation demand more protective equipment and hazard pay for working during the pandemic. The facility recently fired Mondaine for simply trying to protect herself. – Eli Chen/St. Louis Public Radio photo

St. Louis nursing home employees represented by Missouri SEIU Healthcare are demanding protections as frontline workers as COVID-19 cases sweep through their facilities.

At least 99 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Missouri have one or more residents or employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

Nursing home workers are demanding that owners put worker and resident safety before their own profits and agree to provide paid time off for workers so they can quarantine when they are exposed or infected, provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), ensure workers have access to testing, and provide hazard pay during the duration of the virus outbreak.

FIRED FOR TRYING TO PROTECT HERSELF
Monica Modaine, a nursing assistant at Royal Oak Nursing and Rehab, where 10 residents and three workers at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19, said she was fired after she submitted a doctor’s note to excuse her from work because she has asthma and high blood pressure, conditions that put her at greater risk of becoming sick from the coronavirus.

“When I tried to present my medical condition with my supervisor, she didn’t want to hear it,” Mondaine said. “I literally sat in my car and cried.”

With the loss of income, Mondaine said she can barely buy groceries and pay rent.

“It’s just unfair they don’t want to pay us administrative pay, sick pay,” she said. “We’re leaving our loved ones to put our lives on the line.”

Mondaine was fired on April 13, after having spent the previous weekend cleaning, feeding and caring for more than 30 residents of Royal Oak as one of two certified nursing assistants on duty.

Royal Oak is owned by the same management group that is responsible for the mishandled outbreak at Frontier Nursing Home in St. Charles, Mo., where 12 residents have died.

SELF-QUARANTINED, TOLD TO COME TO WORK
Shunda Whitfield, a certified nursing assistant at the Estates of Spanish Lake, self-quarantined herself at home after she was exposed to a resident who tested positive for COVID-19. But she said her supervisor still told her to report to work.

The facility is not doing enough to ensure the safety of residents and workers, she said.

“It’s a really frightening experience. You’re looking at the people being sick. You’re doing all you can do physically, and it’s mentally draining,” she said. “This hazard pay isn’t going to replace a life or stop the pandemic. But it will show some appreciation.”

Lenny Jones, director and vice president of SEIU Healthcare Missouri, which represents about 4,000 area health care workers, said several nursing homes in the St. Louis area have refused to provide basic protections and income security to workers, and have failed to clearly communicate COVID-19 cases to their employees.

“Our members are doing everything they can do to protect themselves and their residents from the virus, but they aren’t getting the support they need from the owners of these nursing homes,” Jones said. “Our workers are being asked to fend for themselves on the front lines and it cannot continue.”

‘EXPOSING THE CRISIS’
Nursing homes have long struggled with adequate staffing because nursing home workers typically receive low wages for difficult work, Jones said. Without sick leave or protections, tens of thousands of employees across Missouri have quit rather than face the risk, he said. But when they quit, they’re not eligible for unemployment assistance.

“This is really exposing the crisis these industries were in before the pandemic,” Jones said. “No pay. No respect for the work that the workers were doing. If we’re going to put our lives on the line, come in and take care of residents, employers should give a little more.”
Now that the situation at Royal Oak has become serious, Jones said the nursing home has begun providing hazard pay and providing proper PPE to employees. But when employees are forced to quarantine, they’re being forced to use their own bank of vacation, sick days and personal time.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in response to the pandemic, provides some employees up to 10 paid sick days and up to 10 weeks of paid medical leave, the act allows health care providers to exempt themselves.

“It’s a crime that this type of benefit applies to workers across the country except those workers who are putting themselves at risk,” Jones said.

“This crisis is going to go on for a while,” he said. “The community has been doing great work making masks to getting masks into the facilities. But this is a situation that is going to be going on for a while. We’re not going to wake up one day in May or June and everything is fine again. This is a situation that’s going to keep impacting healthcare workers and residents for a several months if not years. We’re going to need to have continued community support.”


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