Home Health Aides Are Being Pushed to the Brink by the Pandemic

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By Elle Meyers
July 6, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic may feel like it is never going away. But for home health aides who have been working overtime with clients during the crisis, they have had to balance the extra demands of a weakened health infrastructure and never getting a paid day off.

For 34 year-old Suzanne Beach, it means working 75 hours a week as an in-home health attendant in Loudoun County with a young adult who has autism, instead of the 40 hours she usually put in before the coronavirus pandemic. That’s because schools and special education programs have been closed for months, which means that the structure that was built into her job is long gone.

“My clients are extremely forgiving but there is not paid leave, I don’t even get overtime or time and a half pay for extra hours,” Beach, who has two young daughters to support, said in an interview.

“Since the schools have closed there’s nothing to occupy her time during the day. My client doesn’t really understand why we’re not going to school and why we can’t go outside,” she said. “So there’s been a lot of aggression and stress and everybody is tired and angry.”

And without the program support her client received from the public school system, that means longer work days.

“My job is capped at 40 hours a week and her family needs this support so they have been paying me out of pocket for a lot of my time,” she said. 

But missing a day of work doesn’t feel like an option for Beach, who lost her job a few years ago after having to take time off to care for her sick daughter.

“In 2011 I was fired from my job. My daughter had an ear infection and the antibiotics just weren’t cutting it and I missed a few days of work, so the agency put me on probation and they fired me,” Beach said. “And I was pregnant at the time, too so it was just an ugly complicated situation.” 

For Beach, giving paid leave to workers could really make a difference by helping them stay on top of their bills. 

“If I were to miss one day that’s one tenth of my paycheck which isn’t much but it makes a huge difference to me,” she said. “When wages are this low, you get behind and there’s really no hope of catching up and there’s no chance for me to do overtime later. I’ve got a family to support. I can’t afford to have holes in my income because the bills stay the same no matter what my paycheck is.” 

Although neighboring states already have laws on the books that mandate paid leave, Virginia is lagging behind. According to the Virginia Interfaith Center, 41% or 1.2 million Virginians don’t have access to paid time off, even if they are sick. This means that workers have to choose between taking a sick day for themselves or to take care of a family member or losing out on a day of pay.

Joyce Bumbray-Graves faces a similar situation. Bumbray-Graves, 57, works in Woodbridge providing in-home care for handicapped clients. Everything from bathing to teaching them how to read and write fall to her, and since the pandemic started, she and her clients are stuck inside the house after the day program they attended shut down. 

“I can’t afford her to bring any [germs] into the house because my other client wouldn’t survive anything like that,” Bumbray-Graves said. “Before when she went to the day program, I would take that time to run errands and then be back here before she got home from the program. But now we’re pretty much stuck in the house.”

Bumbray-Graves explained that working without paid leave can be difficult because of the way it never seems to end. 

“In a way you’re working and working and working all day and there’s no end to it,” she said. “I still have work to do at the end of the day you know, nighttime medicine, I have to change them, different things like that. So it’s just nonstop,” she said. 

She noted that paid leave for workers like her is important simply because “everybody needs a break.” 

“People go to work when they’re sick because they need the money but right now you can’t come to work sick because it really affects other people’s health,” she said. “I know how it is to go to work when you don’t feel well. I’ve done it myself, but it would be nice to know that I would call the agency [and take a day off].”

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