How I Get By: Four Days in the Life of a Nursing Home Aide During COVID-19

One woman recounts swimming upstream against an irregular work schedule and uncaring bosses while doing laundry for the elderly amid COVID-19.

The inside line on life on the job.

Even before the pandemic, it was hard for Tina to pay the bills making just $13.10 an hour as a laundry aide in a nursing home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The 32-year-old mother of two is also the primary caregiver for her aging parents—and, as someone with diabetes and an autoimmune disorder, at high risk for contracting COVID-19. On her doctor’s orders, she took two months off of work as the virus surged through her workplace. Her employers did not compensate her for this leave of absence, and she only stayed afloat thanks to her small pool of savings.

This, according to Tina, is part of a pattern. She told VICE that the managers at her facility have used COVID-19 and a new bill from Governor Phil Murphy as an excuse to slash insurance benefits, restrict hours, and strip away paid time off from her and her fellow workers—right when they need help the most. 

“I feel so disgusted, I feel cheated,” Tina said. “This is a very stressful situation for everyone, including management, and I get it. You can be scared just like we are. We’re in this together, and we need to be able to hold onto hope together. But if you’re gonna play God and just not take care of your employees, then I don’t know what I can say about your company or your place of business.”

Tina carved time out of her frenetic schedule to share four days of her life in the middle of a pandemic, fighting underhanded bosses and struggling to make time to care for the people who rely on her—with virtually none left over for herself.

I wake up trying to beat the clock and last night’s blues, fighting my cranky children to get going before we run into traffic. I have to make sure I don’t forget to call Mom and check on Dad’s bypass surgery that only happened yesterday. I’m already late because the only daycare center open in town during this COVID disaster opens exactly at 8 a.m. with no before-care. Oh shoot, did I forget to pay my weekly fees? I think I paid… Or was it the fee for course registration? Let’s just wing it, right? I tell myself. 

My anxiety and stress kicks in, because I know today’s late arrival reflects on my payroll. I was already given a verbal warning, which means less money and more write-ups this time. As I punch the time clock, here comes my first demand of the morning, rolling around the corner. I have a new patient with nothing to wear. 

What I do for a living may not be important to others, but it’s important to my children and me. I have been working as a housekeeper and laundry aide for the last 16 years. My current job is to launder and return personal clothing to 150, sometimes 179 patients all by myself on a daily basis. The job comes with extra headaches, like providing a homeless patient with proper-fitting clothing, working strictly off the donations within the building, or playing detective to figure out who is who, what goes where, and how much more they need from me.

At times, I feel like it’s a game of Russian Roulette, and the odds are very seldomly in my favor. On a daily basis, I may enjoy verbal abuse from a bipolar patient who’s having “a moment,” or hear about the sweetest patient I have entering hospice because COVID wasn’t gentle on her. Today was the latter. I stopped to think, I wonder how her son’s taking it

At a time when the world is busy with diagnosis and lab work, we, the help, become the therapist for the patients who are confused and lost in the nursing home world. I can only  empathize with their thoughts because I have two disabled parents at home dealing with the same issue. Even a hug that they yearn for can be a death sentence. Could you imagine what it feels like, day in and day out? 

Here comes lunch rolling in. I have to find a quick bite or else my diabetes will take a nosedive. But first, I need to fax the paperwork that I need to submit for my disabled parents. I’ve been applying for extra help because we can no longer afford their premiums due to the cuts in Medicare. While doing that, I might be able to sneak in scheduling a doctor’s appointment for my children and I that we missed during the COVID—all this during a 45-minute lunch break. Before I can confirm any appointments, my lunch is over. I must return to the madness of trying to complete today’s work.

My rounds are interrupted when I am charged with the task of being a detective, finding someone’s lost blanket, because family had called and reported it missing. After I search the facility, lo and behold, the famous blanket is discovered in the back of the closet all along. Before I sign off, I have to take it down and iron the patient’s name onto it. As the ink dries, I notice the name and date. Oh sugar, the date of the appointments, I forgot to write them down! Hope there’s still trying to request it off without any consequences. 

According to our new attendance policy, I am not allowed to call out more than twice in six months. Six months! I haven’t even taken a day off to go to the hospital to check on Dad’s leg after bypass surgery, especially because it’s the only one he has left. Bzz! There’s that sharp pain again, all too familiar: Stress is visiting. 

Before returning to my dungeon, I have to defeat a patient I call “The Coat Bandit.” He’s a little aggressive today, demanding a third coat, knowing I can’t give it to him until it comes out of the dryer, let alone the wash first. It’s already 2:30 in the afternoon, and my shift is over by 3 p.m. because there aren’t full-time positions at my facility anymore. Management feels there isn’t the need to have full-time staff available, thanks to the low funding as a result of the census. Not only are my hours cut, but also, there goes my ability to perform the day’s workload.

Today was a rough day with management. My co-workers and I are dealing with serious issues within the building: our managers repeatedly “firing” people on the spot for very lame excuses, and then “rehiring” them five minutes later. They’re doing this so people lose their health benefits and their employee time benefits. It’s just crazy how they manage to find a way to screw us no matter what. 

I have co-workers who are complaining that their health insurance is invalid, but they know they put in the paperwork for the open enrollment. And right now they’re struggling to pay for their asthma pumps, they’re struggling to pay for everyday medications, they’re just struggling. We’re still just getting the same amount of pay. They’re not even offering any extra, as in hazard pay. They’re not offering any extra overtime hours, they’re just not. 

I feel so bad that I work for a multi-million dollar business and we’re scrounging just to keep our heads afloat with what we have. And management is still finding ways to cut corners however they can and take back the little bit of benefits that they do offer. It’s just tough.

I’m so scared from one day to the next. Am I gonna get called in the office because I was late today? Am I gonna get called in the office because they wanted me to do certain tasks I wasn’t hired for? No wonder my anxiety and stress is through the roof at this moment in time—because of the uncertainty of everything. You want to do good, you want to do your job, you want to keep it, because that’s all you have right now. But how they’re forcing us to work, we’re almost like slaves. If you speak up, they find a way to write you up. You refuse, they find a way to get you out of there. 

I’m going through the same issue with my family: I’m not allowed to work full time because of the census being low, and the lack of childcare. When I put in for some time off, I’m told that there’s no coverage. If it’s an emergency, I have to provide proof as an emergency. 

Like I said yesterday, you can’t call out two times in six months, and you have to provide proof of everything. It’s just not fair. Things do come up, things that just need to be handled, and you need the day off. I’m even scared to mention it to my supervisor. I like my supervisor. He works with me at times, but he’s gotta answer to corporate, and I don’t want him to lose his job because he stood behind me. 

This company, it’s so frustrating, so sad. 16 years, it has just gone downhill. When [Barack Obama’s employer healthcare mandate] was introduced, you should have seen how many people had their hours cut, because our corporate office didn’t want to pay the benefits. How many jobs were just omitted because they don’t want to pay the extra? The extra work created by a lack of full-time workers gets pushed onto the employees that’ve been here the longest, like me. Every day, it’s, “Do this, do that, do this.” If I say I didn’t take lunch yet, someone in management tells me, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. You could take lunch at the end of the day.” That’s not fair. 

I know I need this job because I need to pay my rent. I need to make sure I have food on the table. I need to make sure I can pay for my son’s asthma medication. And with the world being so iffy right now with the unemployment benefits, I don’t even know if it’s worth it.

And of course, COVID does not make it any easier. Because the little bit of benefits you had before COVID are now being used up by everyday people who lost a job to COVID. So, God forbid, I need to apply. There’s not going to be any benefits for me. The financial world is so upside-down, backwards, inside-out. Everything just causes more stress and more anxiety, which does bring on other health issues. 

I just want to go see my dad in the hospital and take a couple days to take care of my mom. I know she’s going through some things, worried about my dad. She’s a stroke survivor, she doesn’t need the added stress, she really doesn’t. It brings stress onto me to know that I can’t be there for my parents. Not at this time, not with all these bickering at work, with the lack of staff, the lack of coverage, the lack of hours. I mean, we got hit with COVID. Yes, I understand. But management took that as an excuse just to redo the whole time-off policy. I don’t get it. 

I guess before COVID, the building managed itself with some deficiencies, but enough to get by on a day to day operation. It wasn’t as hard to work for this company, because the demand wasn’t there. We did have more helping hands, even though it was part-time. I think a lot of the recent changes go back to the governor’s staffing bill. Once management got wind that they might possibly need to hire more CNAs, that’s when we started to see more and more terrible cuts to staffing and benefits, plus a lot of “losing” paperwork when you did apply for benefits. 

It was bad then, but now with COVID hitting and the uncertainty of the sickness and how people can get sick from it, they just want to cut back everything. My guess is, the company wants to take less responsibility financially or less responsibility of knowing that it was contracted in their building. I just don’t know how corporate thinks. Now that we’re working during COVID times, a lot of people feel it’s like life and death. We don’t feel we can depend on management to provide a safety net of benefits, to provide the materials we need to maintain safety protocols mandated by the state to try to contain, isolate and reduce exposure to COVID-19. 

I don’t believe in my building right now, if we get hit with another wave of COVID cases. It’s very scary. I’m high-risk. I’m diabetic. I have autoimmune disease that has no cure, no treatments, it’s very rare. And I go in there everyday cringing, sometimes even crying. I don’t want to take the risk of losing my life for a company that doesn’t care about me and that I know will not take care of the issue if I do get sick. 

From what I heard some employees, if they tested positive, they only got one week’s pay: five days. They didn’t even get paid to quarantine for the time that doctors were asking for—quarantine is two weeks! They were not paying that. So these poor COVID patients, my fellow workers who were exposed at the building, were not getting paid. Their rent wasn’t getting paid, their car note, their light, their gas was not getting paid. 

I know this firsthand, because that happened to me. My doctor took me out of work at the eldercare facility for two months because I was so high-risk, and during that time I didn’t get paid. Even though I had a valid doctor’s note, I did not get paid. Thank God that I managed to save a little bit of income tax money. That’s what I survived off of. God forbid, if I didn’t have that money, I don’t know where I would be. Management doesn’t see that. 

We had a member of the corporate office come down today, because we’re prepping for the second wave of the COVID, and you should have seen how many [COVID-19 safety] deficiencies she came across within the building. 

All of a sudden, you’re seeing this PPE coming out of the closets. You see these paper masks just sitting out so people can get them and use them as needed. Now we have to go to the extra mile separating and isolating certain rooms for residents. I just think it’s funny how we didn’t have access to this stuff when the COVID was really here. And if you want to say lack of knowledge or lack of preparation, I can understand that. 

But we all see how when a member of the corporate office makes demands, with a swift hand-wave, or a signature, or just voicing her opinion, things get done, things change in the building. I just think it’s crazy how when they’re not around, we’re begging for stuff! We’re begging for masks; we’re begging for the PPE we need; we’re begging for explanations as to why certain residents, even though they’re in “isolation,” are still moving about in the building. 

Yet this one member or corporate was only there for one day, and she managed to turn around and get everything in order. It’s just crazy how our managers can get away with shorting us for so long, and not have to answer for it. And us poor workers know that things are not right, but when we voice our opinion, we get told: “Just go, just do your job. Don’t worry about it. We got it.” 

We haven’t had deaths from COVID, staff-wise. But we did have some members get severely sick. We had one who ultimately had a major heart attack. She was in a coma for about two weeks. Now that she has recovered from that, she has a new headache of trying to find a place to stay—she didn’t get paid during her sick time, so she lost her housing. 

She’s a long-term employee here: She should have had some type of benefits to protect her from this situation. I want to tell management: “Stop being so stingy! If the vacation is there, and there’s not enough sick time, use her vacation! It’s not that hard.” But because they want to be stingy and not pay out, this is what this poor lady is going through.

It’s especially sad because she’s by herself. She has no family. She has no children, she only has friends to rely on. We’ve been helping her do her paperwork, make sure it goes through. It’s a slap in the face though, when she comes every other two weeks to try to pick up a check, because there’s nothing here for her. You see in her face the hurt and the disgust.

It’s a corporate world, but these corporations have human employees. We’re not robots.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.

Via Vice News

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