Home health aides and personal care attendants are on the front lines

The writer with a client.

When I was younger, my sister used to tell me, “Nora, you’re the kind of person who tries to make life easier for everyone else.” That is true, and it is why I’ve loved my job as a home care worker for over 15 years. There are tens of thousands of us across the state, mostly women, and many women of color like myself, and our jobs are challenging but rewarding in the best of times. And then came COVID-19. 

We don’t do this job to get rich, but most home care workers across Minnesota are paid less than $15 per hour — with few benefits — to help make sure seniors and people with disabilities are able to live safely in their homes. Especially now with coronavirus, people with any health issues are much safer and happier in their homes. But for years there has been what’s called a “care crisis” because there aren’t enough people like me who are willing to do this emotionally and physically exhausting work for pay that is less than someone can get working for Walmart

This virus has made life even more scary for those of us on the frontlines doing this work. I recently started getting a ride to and from my client’s house from his family, but before that I was riding the bus. I used to love seeing my bus pull up, but during coronavirus, I would see my bus and worry about how many people would be on it and whether I’d get sick from someone next to me.  Many people doing frontline work are still facing this challenge: We either risk our health, or stay home and not be able to pay our bills. We don’t have the luxury of working from home.

I had a son who was killed six years ago, and his friends still call and check on me, especially during times like this. Lately I’ve told them I just pray that I don’t get sick cause I have bills that won’t get paid if that happens. If I’m sick I can’t do my job. 

This pandemic has made clear that our system isn’t set up to support the care that we believe everyone should get.

I pay for my health insurance out of pocket, and if I get sick I wouldn’t be able to afford it. Our society has always undervalued “care” work done by women and people of color. But I hope this pandemic will at least highlight the real value of care work. I have always believed caregiving is “essential” work, even if our paychecks don’t make us feel very “essential.” It shouldn’t take a pandemic to recognize that caregivers and other frontline workers shouldn’t have to make choices between our health and the roof over our head.

I’m a happy person, but lately I wake up and I’m scared. I find myself pre-worrying about what might happen. I get my temperature taken as I walk into work, and if I have a temp I can’t work. I understand and support this, but if I can’t work it won’t be long until I can’t afford food and a place to live.

Adding to the economic challenges is the fear of this pandemic that weighs on caregivers. I have one mask I have to use and re-use. I’m thinking about making my own out of an old T-shirt. We are running low on gloves. These are things all health care workers should have. This is doubly scary for me because when I leave my client’s house I come home to take care of my brother who has lung issues and diabetes. If I were to get sick, I’d be scared to even come home for fear of getting him sick. When I come home from work now I take off my clothes and put them in a garbage bag to bring right to wash, just to be safe.

Our union SEIU Healthcare Minnesota is pushing our elected officials to show they value those of us taking the risks every day to care for Minnesotans by helping home care workers get the protective equipment we need and adding more paid sick days so if we or someone in our household get exposed to COVID-19 we don’t risk ourselves or our clients. We’re also trying to get overtime — right now most agencies have to cap our hours at 40 because the state doesn’t provide funding for overtime pay.

Caring for people is my calling. It brings me joy, even if it can be difficult at times. But this pandemic has made clear that our system isn’t set up to support the care that we believe everyone should get. These are scary times, but I’m hopeful they help push us to come together and finally show that we as a state are willing to value and care for the frontline caregivers who put themselves in harm’s way to care for fellow Minnesotans before, during and long after this coronavirus pandemic.