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Home health aide Florine Simpson always wipes the doorbell with Lysol before ringing.
Simpson, 37, also never sits during her shifts and wears a protective suit she says makes her look “like a Martian.”
“It’s scary with everything going on,” said Simpson, who lives and works in Staten Island. “A lot of the clients are afraid of me coming. I just try to make them feel as safe as possible.”
Simpson is one of the estimated 167,840 home health aides still working daily in the midst of a pandemic to assist people with basics such as bathing and cooking.
That workforce, deemed essential by Gov. Andrew Cuomo amid the COVID-19 health epidemic, is “overwhelmingly” composed of low-income immigrant women of color, according to a 2018 city report that relies on Census data.
They typically earn the $15-an-hour minimum wage, or a little more, with about $4,000 in overtime each year, according to indeed.com.
Many say they live paycheck to paycheck, and some rely on public benefits for food and housing, according to 1199 SEIU, the union that represents more than 60,000 city health aides.
Like other New Yorkers still having to go to work, they worry about the lack of gloves, masks and hand sanitizer.
“The vast majority of home and community-based providers (68%) in our survey report that they do not have access to adequate personal protective equipment,” said Home Care Association of New York State President and CEO Al Cardillo.
‘Trains Are Crowded’
In New York City, home health aides frequently use public transportation to get to their clients, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future.
Health aide Iris Smith, 60, commutes on the No. 2 train from her apartment in Crown Heights to a patient she cares for in lower Manhattan.
“I always look for a car with less people,” she said. “Sometimes the trains are crowded. I have to wait for the trains to pass and call my agency to tell them I’m going to be late.”
She wipes down the doorknob and washes her hands as soon as she arrives.
“You have to be very mindful and cautious,” she said. “If I was to catch it and bring it to the patient, I know they wouldn’t survive.”
When she gets back home, she also takes a series of precautions to protect her 25-year-old son who has asthma.
“I take my coat and put it into a garbage bag,” she said.
Shortage of Workers
Health aides say they are afraid to take off if they themselves feel sick or need time for childcare. Few can afford to just stop working, with close to half in the city living in or close to poverty, according to a report by PHI, a nonprofit that focuses on direct care workers.
Simpson, who suffers from allergies, got tested for COVID-19 on Friday. She’d been sneezing and coughing, but had no fever, and wanted to make sure she didn’t have coronavirus.
“My company said to continue to work until I find out,” she said, noting that she will wait until the results come in a few days.
Simpson said there’s added pressure to show up because some health aides are already out sick or watching their children since schools closed.
“I’m picking up extra shifts. I’ve got four patients,” she said.
Sick leave pay for health aides has long been an issue.
In January, THE CITY reported that 11 private city-based health care agencies failed to give their staffers basic paid sick leave, an investigation by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection found.
The agencies agreed to pay a total of nearly $450,000 in restitution to more than 4,100 home health aides and were also forced to pony up nearly $122,000 in civil penalties and take steps to rectify their policies.
In ‘Deep Isolation’
Some people, like Jim Paul, are now taking care of others by themselves during the health crisis.
Before the pandemic, Paul, 78, got assistance from two home aides to care for his wife, Susanne, 81, who has Alzheimer’s.
“We went into fairly deep isolation,” said Jim Paul, noting he asked the aides to stop coming but has continued to pay them.
The Upper West Side couple regularly practiced yoga and attended a recent dance program hosted by the Alzheimer Association of New York City.
At first, they’d go on walks to Central Park but now they fear that even that is too dangerous. The couple, who both worked in different roles tied to the United Nations before retiring, now fills their day with calls to friends from all over the world.
The majority of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias are over 65, the age group most susceptible to COVID-19 complications, said Christopher Smith, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association, New York City Chapter.
“Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is always challenging, but COVID-19 has forced family caregivers, home health aides and skilled nursing facilities to quickly recalibrate in order to protect this vulnerable population,” he added.
Iris Smith, and other health aides, say they’re drawn by duty, and take pride that their work makes it possible for their clients to live outside institutional settings.
“You are still going to do your job because there is always someone worse off,” she said. “They depend on you. They are waiting for you to bath or dress them. You want to be there.”
“I just pray for everyone when I go out,” she added. “We are all thinking the same thing: Will I bring this home to my family?”
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