‘At least if I get sick...my children will be OK’: Buffalo nursing home workers demand hazard pay
Employees of Center Health Care’s two Buffalo nursing homes protested over a lack of hazard pay Thursday, saying they are putting themselves and their families at risk without being fairly compensated.
Wanda Wilson uses words like “uncomfortable” and “chaotic” when describing her work environment at Ellicott Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing.
The certified nursing assistant said she needs to get permission just to use the facility’s personal protective equipment. Just the other day, she said she had to wait an hour and a half just to get an answer about why a caution bag had been placed over her resident’s door handle. It turned out the resident was running a fever but had yet to be tested.
Wilson is worried about infecting her two-year-old twins back home.
“Everything's compromised, everything,” Wilson said while fighting back tears. “I would not want any of my loved ones being here, but I have to come here and take care of everybody else's loved ones. … So I try to come here and make a difference and it's hard.”
She does all of this without getting hazard pay.
“A lot of times I come here and I just can't help but be upset because it's not fair.”
She and her co-workers, as well as employees at Buffalo Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, demanded hazard pay Thursday in a car caravan protest. They said the two nursing homes’ corporate owner, Bronx-based Centers Health Care, has refused to offer bonuses or premium pay like other nursing homes have done during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Buffalo News reports other local nursing home operators like Kaleida Health, Catholic Health and the McGuire Group are all providing hazard pay.
“A place like this, where the owner has 49 nursing homes and enough resources to take care of workers, where the average wage here is less than $15 an hour, ought to be doing more,” said Todd Hobler, vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the statewide union that organized the protests.
House Democrats are proposing $200 billion to fund hazard pay for essential workers in its $3 trillion relief bill, while a bill introduced into the New York State Legislature last month would mandate employers provide hazard pay to essential workers.
However, Hobler said nursing home operators shouldn’t be waiting for the state and federal governments.
“Workers who have been here for decades deserve hazard pay. They're taking risks for themselves and their family to come in here and care for residents who need the care,” he said.“So (Centers Health Care CEO) Kenny Rozenberg and the Centers have to do more.”
Workers like Wilson also alleged they are not being given adequate PPE. She said some equipment is limited for the COVID-19 floor only, so she needs to leave her floor and ask an administrator to wear extra gear, and that workers have been told to use the same masks for two to three days before discarding.
She said she would buy her own masks, if she received hazard pay.
“I don't have the money to do that,” she noted.
A Centers Health Care spokesperson declined to comment about the demands for hazard pay, but did deny any allegations their nursing homes do not have adequate PPE.
“Ellicott Center … and Buffalo Center … have had ample supply of PPE since early March as per the guidelines of the New York State Department of Health and the CDC,” the statement read. “Our clinical leadership and regional educators have educated the staff on washing PPE so they can be used again. Depending upon the particular clinical staff personnel, there are two types of gowns, disposable for limited usage and washable, made to be used again when they are disinfected.”
The state Department of Health and Attorney General’s Office are investigating whether nursing homes are supplying adequate PPE, as well as following other federal and state regulations during the COVID-19 crisis.
The equipment that is provided can make work difficult, noted Samira McClure, a CNA at Ellicott Center for the last 13 years.
She described her hazmat-style suit makes it difficult to breath and communicate with residents.
“I got to sit and feed them. I'm trying to distance myself like a robot because I'm afraid. They're looking at me like, ‘I thought I was your friend. Why are you treating me like this?’” McClure said.
She said she would feel better about working under the difficult conditions if she received hazard pay.
“At least I can know if I get sick, I can get compensated, my children will be OK,” she said. “Because right now I'm afraid.”
Buffalo Center has had 11 residents die of COVID-19, while Ellicott Center has had four, according to the latest state data. Those figures do not include any residents who may have died after being taken to a hospital. Both facilities are rated one star by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, meaning "much below average."
Ellicott CNA Ishma Marshall has seen those nursing homes deaths firsthand.
“For the people who think this COVID is fake, it's not fake. It’s real,” he said. “People is really, really getting sick. People is really leaving. Like, they really is dying. I witnessed it firsthand. This COVID is real out here.”