Nursing Home Workers Seek More Protection in Fighting Virus

YOUGSTOWN, Ohio – As the coronavirus death toll continues to mount in long-term care facilities, the Service Employees International Union is calling on officials and industry leaders to take more aggressive steps to protect residents and workers.

On Thursday, a small group of SEIU 1199 representatives, workers and family members honored nursing home residents who have died from COVID-19, the disease spread by the coronavirus. Those present placed white carnations on the steps of City Hall on S. Phelps Street. The local vigil coincided with others across Ohio and West Virginia, coordinated by SEIU 1199, which represents health care workers in nursing homes, including Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

“More needs to be done to protect these workers and to stop the spread of COVID,” said Michelle Pirigyi, administrative organizer for Service Employees International Union 1199. “They need more PPE [personal protective equipment]. I have workers who are wearing rain coats instead of gowns.”

The number of deaths among residents in long-term care facilities continues to rise. The Ohio Department of Health reports this week that 1,491 residents have died from COVID-19 since April 15. That is an increase of 115 deaths in one week.

Youngstown Health Commissioner Erin Bishop said Ohio’s National Guard will be in Mahoning County today conducting tests in area nursing homes. Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the guard to perform testing to help contain the spread of the virus in the congregate settings.

In the Mahoning Valley, 195 residents in senior care facilities have died since April 15. Reports are not available prior to that date. In Mahoning County, 18 more residents died last week, bringing the total to 144. Three deaths were reported in Columbiana for a total of 29 fatalities. No new deaths were reported in Trumbull County last week, where 22 long-term care facility residents have died from COVID-19.

According to Pirigyi, nursing homes and assisted living centers have received some shipments of protective equipment from state and federal supplies, but she claims those supplies are being rationed to staff unless outbreaks occur.

According to an SEIU press release, a survey of nursing home workers reveals 75% of nursing home workers feel their employers are not doing enough to ensure that there is enough protective equipment, free testing and paid sick days and other protections.

“Our employees keep their N95 mask in a bag with their name on it and have to reuse them for a week or more,” she said. “First the public was hoarding equipment and now the employers are hoarding it.”

Mercy Health operates Humility House Senior Living in Austintown, one of several facilities that has had COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The safety, security and well-being of our patients, their families and our associates remain part of our core values as a health care ministry and propels our continued investment in our human resources so they may thrive both in the workplace and at home,” stated Jonathon Fauvie, public relations and communications manager Mercy Health Great Lakes. “To ensure the continued health and safety of patients and associates, Mercy Health regularly monitors current supplies and began planning early. We have plans in place to support our needs and remain committed to the appropriate and responsible use of supplies and equipment, at this time and always. This applies to COVID-19 tests, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and other resources.”

Brenda Rushton, executive board for SEIU 1099 and laundry worker at Beeghly Oaks nursing home for the past 11 years, said more needs to be done to protect support personnel in the nursing homes such as laundry, kitchen and housekeeping.

“I feel like they need to keep us better informed. They haven’t been honest about telling us patients were testing positive until after the fact,” she said. “We’re on the frontlines too, and putting ourselves at risk.”

Erin Bishop, Youngstown City Health Commissioner, lays carnations on the steps of City Hall.

Pirigyi said most of the state tested nursing assistants in senior care facilities are making as little as $9 an hour and can’t afford to miss time off from work. She said if a worker tests positive for COVID-19 and is showing no symptoms, she is expected to work and is assigned to care for COVID-positive patients.

If workers are positive and have to be quarantined, she said the workers must use personal or vacation time in order to be paid for time off of work.

“Though as a country we have hailed them as heroes during this crisis, these workers were never treated with the dignity they deserve. The results of this survey, which included many participants from across Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, show that nursing home workers believe that their lives are at-risk and do not have the proper protective equipment,” said Anthony Caldwell, Public Affairs Director for SEIU District 1199. “Nursing home workers are standing together to demand improvements. We cannot allow low staffing ratios, poverty wages, and quality care issues to continue.”

He also said low staffing ratios in nursing homes have always put patient care at-risk. “Recent reports have also shown that low staffing can be tied directly with improper infection control and other negative outcomes for patients. Not only are nursing homes understaffed, the workers who provide critical care are underpaid. While we call them heroes for their brave and dedicated work, they were never paid the wages that they deserved in the first place,” Caldwell said.

Some steps Caldwell said SEIU is demanding are:
Enough personal protective equipment to protect workers and their residents
Testing, paid sick days, and free COVID-19 treatment
Wages high enough to support a family and affordable health care
The right to a union, so workers can have a voice on the jobs about the care they provide
Enough staff to keep workers and residents safe and provide quality care
Strong regulation of nursing homes, with significant penalties for violations
Sufficient funding for nursing homes, with guarantees that the money will go to patient care and not to corporate profits
The ability to give good care and for nursing home residents to get care in the setting of their choice
Respect and equal treatment, regardless of the color of our skin or where we come from

“Our nation’s nursing homes have seen a staggering loss of life during the current pandemic. Nursing home workers — black, white, Asian, and brown — have been heroic in this crisis despite low wages, the need for better staffing and personal protective equipment, the need for good Union jobs, and quality care issues,” Caldwell said.

Results from SEIU’s national nursing home worker survey show 80% of respondents feel their lives are at risk as they might be infected at work as a result of federal government not doing enough to ensure that there is enough PPE, free testing, paid sick days and other protections for nursing home workers in this pandemic.

The release cites federal data as of May 31, 2020, which shows there have been 95,515 positive cases among nursing home residents and 31,782 deaths.

Since statistics first started being recorded April 15, 76 residents have tested positive for the virus and 26 staff members in Trumbull County.

Mahoning County has had the largest number of outbreaks and deaths in long-term care facilities in the region, with 1,196 residents testing positive and 487 staff members

In Columbiana County, 94 residents have contracted the coronavirus and 19 staff members.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, five residents tested positive in the week ending June 17 in Columbiana County. There are 133 cumulative cases. There was one staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 and 10 cumulative cases.

In Mahoning County, there were 101 residents who tested positive for coronavirus for the week and 531 cumulative cases. A total of 34 staff members were positive for the virus and there are 264 cumulative cases among staff.

Six new residents tested positive for the virus in Trumbull County for 59 cumulative cases while two staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and 25 cumulative cases.

Pictured at top: Gary Walker and Toby Walker, pastors of Restoration Christian Fellowship Church in Warren, Solange Walker, Erin Bishop, Youngstown Health Commissioner and Michelle Pirigyi, administrative organizer for Service Employees International Union 1099, pray for the nursing home residents who have died from the coronavirus and for the safety of health care workers.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.