Renee Morgan, a housekeeper at a nursing home in St. Louis, caught Covid-19 in late April and considered herself lucky. Her case was mild.
Her quarantine wasn't. Morgan, 57, was stunned to learn that her employer, Blue Circle Rehab and Nursing, would not give her sick pay while she was out. She's had to figure out how to cover her bills while waiting for the negative test results she needs to return to work.
"We're here caring for somebody's grandmother. We're front-line workers, too," said Morgan, who has worked at the facility for 19 years. She earns a little more than $10 an hour plus one week of paid time off each year -- time she's already burned through. She's now into her third week without pay. "I hurt so bad because it's not right."
Many nursing-home workers around the country are losing pay after catching Covid-19 or being forced into quarantine, according to union officials, nursing home operators and workers. It's an unwelcome development for people who earn little pay in some of the country's most heavily infected workplaces. Long-term care facilities have been associated with at least 200,000 infections and more than 39,000 deaths, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the data available from 39 states.
Meanwhile, some nursing-home operators that don't pay sick workers have benefited from millions of dollars in taxpayer aid. Government officials have attached few conditions to how those funds -- part of a $175 billion initiative to help health-care providers defray costs associated with the pandemic -- must be spent. And recent federal legislation requiring sick pay for many Covid-stricken workers contained an exemption for the health-care field that some nursing homes have been quick to use.
"Workers have been feeling the brunt of this," said U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat. She has proposed legislation to protect nursing-home workers, including a requirement for two weeks of paid sick leave. "Their work isn't valued enough, and these working conditions make it very difficult for them to do their jobs."
In the absence of universal testing for Covid-19, federal guidance calls for ill nursing-home workers to stay out of work until they're symptom free -- no fever, no cough -- for 72 hours before returning to work. Cutting off their pay gives them a dangerous incentive to return to work early, while they may still be contagious.
Nursing assistants, the most common workers in nursing homes, make a median wage of $13.38 per hour, according to a 2019 study by PHI, a Bronx-based nonprofit that advocates for better caregiver jobs. That's less than half the average U.S. hourly earnings for workers in all industries, according to federal data. Many nursing assistants don't have enough savings to forgo weeks of income.
"Many of these workers are well below the poverty level," said Charlene Harrington, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing. "They have families to support, so they can't afford to take time off."