Pandemic Shines a Light on Long-term Care Injustices

By Brian Shepherd

When you think of ministers, an in-home personal care assistant (PCAs) might not be the first image that comes to your mind. However, in talking with PCA Tracy Richards, here in Las Vegas, she tells us that what keeps her in this underpaid and difficult work is that, “It is a calling from God.” Her 15 years as a PCA began when she saw a need for services because seniors and people with disabilities were neglected.

PCAs provide direct, hands-on, personal care: bathing, dressing, toileting, and preparing and helping clients eat meals. These services help Tracy’s clients continue to live independently at home. For many of them a PCA is a lifeline, as most do not have family or friends to care for them. Despite this life affirming work, Tracy, like thousands of PCAs in Nevada and across the nation, make less than $11/hour, with no benefits or job security.

Experiencing a prolonged pandemic has shed light on the deep flaws in our country’s underfunded and overstretched long-term care (LTC) system. This includes underfunding and rules that challenge the work of PCAs, such as those excluding them from basic job protections.

Like Tracy, the majority of PCAs work two or three jobs to make up for the lack of a living wage. Without the benefits of Paid Time Off (PTO), or Sick Leave, Tracy and other PCAs must face a challenging choice. When sick, does she go to work, placing her vulnerable clients at risk? Or, does she face dire financial consequences to take Sick Leave, without pay, and intensify her struggle of making ends meet? Tracy and other PCAs are asking, “What can we do?”

Currently, home care workers are at a loss as our nation transitions to a new culture of social distancing. Social distancing isn’t an option in home care. Tracey’s work requires close personal contact with her clients - if she distances herself - her clients won’t get the care they need.

This is the reason why PCAs are organizing. They are advocating for higher wages, basic benefits like paid sick leave, affordable healthcare, and training to provide the highest and safest standards of care. Affirmation of unions, which the United Church of Christ supports, is one of the best ways for workers to bring justice to the workplace.

In 1997, General Synod XXI reaffirmed the “responsibility of workers to organize for collective bargaining with employers regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions. It is the responsibility of employers to create and maintain a climate conducive to the workers’ autonomous decision to organize.”

Home care heroes are working tirelessly on the frontlines of our healthcare system to slow the spread of the virus. They are also ministering to the sick, the widows, the blind and those treated as the least of these in our society. As a faith community, we can bless and affirm their work. We can minister to them as we reach out to our shut-ins. We also have a prophetic voice that can call on government leaders, including Medicaid programs and home care agencies, to set the health, safety, and financial well-being of our PCAs as a priority. For so many PCAs, this is truly a spiritual calling. May we, the Church, affirm them for answering that call, and support them with both our prayers and our voice.

Brian Shepherd has spent most of his adult life in the labor union movement organizing workers across the nation. Coming to the Christian faith in his early 30's, Brian has blended his fiery broad-based relational organizing style with a deep commitment to participating in God's struggle for a life of justice. He is currently studying Christian Ministry at Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary online and is a Member in Discernment with the United Church of Christ.

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