Home health aide: Working without PPE, sick leave is like ‘going in front of a firing squad’

The following is part of an essay series from Memphis workers affected by the coronavisur pandemic. The series is produced by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in partnership with High Ground. Click here to read the rest of the series and MLK50's larger coronavirus coverage.

"The healthcare system is not broken, it is shattered beyond repair."
Sepia Coleman



My job is a gift from GOD. I love what I do.

I have been doing this kind of work for 24 years. I have had scabies, been bitten by bedbugs and fleas, and had maggots on me from doing home health. I will admit I have worked in some deplorable conditions, and yet I still risk my life for a health care system that doesn’t give a f— about me and many others.

Health care workers are on the battlefield with no protection at all. I am an overnight CNA (certified nursing assistant) for a nonprofit company, and I do home health care through another employer. We are the lowest paid, with no union rights in Memphis, so we have no voice during this crisis.

I currently make $12.91 an hour for 37.75 hours a week for the first employer. I make $10.50 for the other employer. I work 25 hours a week for that job, which I just started in August. I don’t receive any sick time at either job. When they stopped outside visitation at the first facility, they started taking our temperature every day when we went into work and telling us to log supplies in and out because we’re limited on supplies.

It got serious after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Shelby County, when both of my jobs told us not to get tested for coronavirus, since we take risks every day. Basically they were saying we know what we signed up for.

Plus, they said they would not compensate us for the test. I know it’s because if we got tested they wouldn’t have any staff to cover those who tested positive. We are already having staff shortages.

I work with long-term care people, mostly bedridden. But they recently started accepting Veterans Affairs patients, which means more to handle, like catheters or tubes. Our supplies are already limited. Changing residents, those who have incontinence, means I am exposed to basically everything and anything. Before this outbreak, just this year, I have had the stomach flu twice. It’s very sad that I had to self-medicate with over-the-counter meds because I don’t have any sick time off.

So trust and believe me, when I found out about COVID-19, I was like I pray I don’t get it because first of all, I can’t afford to miss work, and secondly, I don’t want to infect my family because everybody has underlying conditions like myself. I have anemia; my mom has leukemia and my stepfather was just diagnosed with cancer. My youngest daughter has lupus; the other daughter has sickle cell disease. I usually visit my mom every day, but she doesn’t want me to come now because she’s scared because I am exposed to so much.

More residents have expired lately than normal since the pandemic, and due to the HIPPA law they can’t tell us if it was natural causes or COVID-19. Just Saturday night before last, we lost a resident who hadn’t been there even a month. When the two most recent people passed away, they wouldn’t let their families come because of the no-visitor policy. We had to wear isolation shields.

I wonder if they had COVID-19.

I don’t understand how they expect us to continue to work without any security. All they say is “wash your hands,” and if you’re feeling sick stay home. How many people in the health care field can afford to stay home, especially when you’re the lowest-paid profession like CNAs are? I pray that I don’t get it, but if I do I hope I live through it.

I just want to end with this: I am a fighter for health care rights because even though we take care of everybody else before and after COVID-19, our lives matter, too. It’s about people, not numbers.

We are considered to be essential workers, yet we on the front line can’t get the supplies we need. They didn’t have enough PPE gowns the other day, and we had to use regular gowns sprayed down with Lysol.

It’s so sad out here. I’m staying prayed up because I have never seen so many selfish, inconsiderate people at a time of global crisis.

The healthcare system is not broken, it is shattered beyond repair.

Find resources in English and Spanish in our Memphis Area COVID-19 Resource Guide.

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