PORTLAND, Ore — They’re not considered health care workers, but they are essential.
Many of the men and women who go into someone's home to help them are called home care providers, and they are some of the least protected during this pandemic.
They tell KGW underlying problems in the industry are now being exposed.
Many seniors and people with disabilities turn to home care providers to help them live, bathe and dress them, do work around the house, go shopping, pick up prescriptions, talk to their doctors, care for their wounds and much more.
Carla Hodges has been a caregiver for six years and works for multiple people in the Portland metro area.
“If we don't go to these peoples' houses a lot of these clients have nobody,” Hodges said.
Though many of her clients are scared about catching the virus, they need help in their homes and don't have any other option.
“I have one client that says one day she wants me there, one day she doesn’t because she’s just so scared of getting sick and possibly dying herself, and she doesn’t want that,” Hodges said, “Not only is she scared for herself but she’s scared for me that I might get it.”
Every day the coronavirus threatens lives and Hodges when ventures out in public, she chances with her clients' health, her family's and her own.
She says she takes precautions; her hands are raw from washing and sanitizing so much.
But Hodges is among many home caregivers who don't feel protected doing this job right now. In part, she feels compromised because others aren't wearing masks out at grocery stores, pharmacies or other public places.
“I made my own mask so I do have a mask but there are a lot of home care workers out there that don't have masks to wear, any kind of PPE equipment to use at all,” Hodges said.
They haven’t had access to personal protective equipment since day one, executive director of SEIU Local 503, which represents thousands of long term care workers, Melissa Unger said.
"We have other home care workers who work for an agency and haven’t been provided PPE. The agencies that were on the list that the National Guard distributed to earlier this week when they distributed to facilities got less than assisted living facilities or nursing home facilities but they got some,” Unger told KGW.
Unger says the union has begged the state for personal protective equipment, like masks. Without it, caregivers and their clients are at higher risk.
“We are starting to see that break loose and we’re hopeful that home care workers who work with the state are about to get PPE accessible. The PPE backlog has been really serious and it’s also just, like, how do workers in these situations get elevated? Because the people that home care workers and personal support workers are working with are literally some of the most vulnerable people to this virus.”
Unger says this public health crisis has highlighted long-standing problems in long-term care, but she’s hopeful it could not highlight a different path. That path would be paved in higher pay, paid time off, better benefits and more respect.
She says many long-term care workers feel underpaid and undervalued, and this crisis proves it.
“It is a group of workers that have been invisible and now they're very visible because they are on the frontlines and there are so many people who are vulnerable and/or dying in different situations. So it's a visible workforce all of a sudden; what are we going to do to change it?”
Long-term care workers are putting a call out for anyone who can sew masks to send them their way.
You can send them to the SEIU Local 503 office in Portland at 6401 SE Foster Rd.