Baltimore Sun

It’s time for lawmakers to care for those who’ve cared for us throughout COVID

- By Lisa Brown Lisa Brown is executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East Maryland/D.C. Division (Twitter @1199SEIU_MDDC).

This Labor Day, with the delta variant causing COVID-19 cases to spike, local lawmakers should commit to directly supporting the long-term care workers who have supported our communitie­s throughout this pandemic — and long before it.

The last 18 months have shown just how much we rely on the people who show up every day to keep our loved ones healthy and safe: nurses who administer medication­s and monitor vital signs, aides who bathe and feed, cleaners who disinfect and sanitize — all workers who connect with and keep our loved ones company when we cannot.

In addition to providing ongoing care, nurses, aides and cleaners also first sounded the alarms when long-term care facilities and home health aid agencies did not provide the personal protective equipment (PPE) and infection control to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Members of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East throughout Maryland and the District of Columbia have been organizing to demand safety, infection control, regulatory oversight and the pay, benefits and training that allow dedicated caregivers to care for their own families and futures.

From petitions to pickets, long-term care workers have been on the front lines of fighting both the pandemic and an industry that often puts profits over the health and safety of our loved ones. Take, for example, the Maryland nursing homes now owned by Portopicco­lo Group, an investment firm that bought nursing homes during the pandemic to make a profit — a move that Maryland’s regulators rubber-stamped. As a recent exposé revealed, Portopicco­lo Group failed to provide proper PPE and medical supplies, including medication­s; asked workers to continue working when they tested positive for COVID-19, and cut pay and benefits. These takeovers forced many dedicated caregivers to leave for jobs that offered more safety and enough pay and benefits to make ends meet for their own families.

Such takeovers worsen the already-existing staff shortages in long-term care. As residents of Maryland and D.C. grow older, PHI estimates that we will need nearly 40% more long-term caregivers. The same report shows that nearly 10% of Maryland’s direct caregivers live in poverty.

The people who care for your loved ones need to be able to care for their families, or, like the veteran caregivers at Portopicco­lo

facilities, they will be forced to find sustainabl­e work elsewhere.

States such as New Jersey and Rhode Island passed legislatio­n that increased long-term care workers’ pay to address such staffing shortages. Both Massachuse­tts and the District of Columbia have proposed spending plans that recognize that investing directly in worker pay will improve the quality of Medicaid home and community based programs. Thus far, Maryland has not.

With some legislatio­n, local lawmakers have acknowledg­ed the importance of shoring up essential workers. The Maryland General Assembly passed muchneeded protection­s for essential workers with the Maryland Essential Workers Protection Act, and hazard pay was given to some front line essential workers using CARES Act money. However, care givers in nursing homes, home- and community-based settings were excluded from receiving hazard pay, and efforts to pass legislatio­n to provide such pay to front line care workers failed. Even State Medicaid increases to Maryland Skilled Nursing Facilities did not come with a mandate to assist workers. Meanwhile, in Virginia, tens of thousands of home care workers

could receive hazard pay because the state recognized the sacrifices our caregivers made during the early height of the pandemic.

Proposed federal legislatio­n, such as the “Better Care Better Jobs Act,” lays out a vision for investing in the careers of the people who care for our loved ones. Congressio­nal Democrats should take this moment to eliminate the filibuster and pass such critical legislatio­n.

But our region can and must act, regardless of what Congress does, because our communitie­s need well-supported caregivers across care settings. Maryland’s lawmakers must commit to providing the decent pay and benefits, real industry oversight and career-advancing training that will uplift our lower-wage, long-term caregivers. Ultimately, this benefits the rest of us, as nearly every one of our families either depends on such care now or will in the future. This Labor Day, it’s time for our policies to directly support the caregivers who directly support us.

 ?? FILE ?? Members of the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East’s Homecare Division — predominan­tly composed of Caribbean immigrants — rallied in Manhattan in July.
FILE Members of the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East’s Homecare Division — predominan­tly composed of Caribbean immigrants — rallied in Manhattan in July.

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