Unsung but showing up: Personal care assistants during COVID-19

Published: Sep. 14, 2020 at 8:36 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - According to recent articles published in the Journal of American Medical Association, home health care workers are a vulnerable labor force, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Individuals who provide personal care services to home-bound clients perform physical and household tasks for sick, elderly or disabled people. They may do chores, run errands or assist with hygiene and wound care.

The JAMA articles, published in August, found a lack of recognition for home health care workers, along with “a lack of resources for reducing COVID-19 transmission.”

“Underpaid and overwhelmingly women of color, they shoulder the responsibility for hands-on assistance with bathing, toileting, dressing, and housekeeping for vulnerable older adults in the home. Home care workers are essential to the health of more than 7 million older adults who require care in the home,” wrote doctors Theresa A. Allison, Anna Oh and Krista L. Harrison in the article “Extreme Vulnerability of Home Care Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic—A Call to Action.”

According to Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services, approximately 4,000 Alaskans receive in-home care from personal care assistants or home health aides. Lorna Garcia of Anchorage-based Arctic Care Services worries about the health of her clients and her employees, most of whom are part-time and combine the job with other work.

“We are multicultural employees. We have whites. We have Blacks. We have Asians. We have Pacific Islanders. We have Natives as well. But most are Asians,” Garcia told Alaska’s News Source.

Garcia said one of the challenges is that workers must enter clients' homes to perform their jobs, and personal homes don’t have the same COVID-19 infection controls you’d find in hospitals or schools. “We are more at risk because of lack of supplies, lack of knowledge,” Garcia said.

With so much attention focused on keeping health care providers healthy — doctors, nurses, emergency responders, hospital staff — personal care assistants, who are very much front-line providers, often feel overlooked.

“Some of the employees...ask me, ‘how come Providence Hospital are provided with free masks, free of this, free of that, and we don’t?’ But, in case of emergency, I have supplies here. I always have extra supplies here just in case,” Garcia said, pointing to various locations within her midtown office.

Andreas Jennings of Willow Personal Care Assistants said the company’s employees are also mostly women and often work more than one job. “They are going into clients' homes. They are taking additional risks just showing to work because they care for their actual clients, and they understand how important it is to be there for them and provide that care,” Jennings said.

Jennings told Alaska’s News Source, personal care is essential work that indirectly benefits more than just the clients.

“If the clients that depend on that were to lose their care, we have some [clients] that would have to be put into assisted living or even hospitalized, and that would just further exasperate the issue of hospitals not having room, and not being able to care for everybody that they would like to,” Jennings said.

Nationally, home health workers face tough decisions between accepting increased risk by going to work or the financial loss associated with staying home.

“I don’t think they get the appreciation that you might get from first responders or hospital staff, not that those people don’t deserve every accolade they get, but I think that PCA’s are kind of a forgotten workforce who are still showing up and still doing this necessary work for this community,” Jennings said.

Both companies told us they’re doing what they can to support their employees, including providing masks and gloves should employees not have their own. Willow Personal Care Associates also said it offers paid leave to employees who may need to quarantine due to a COVID-19 exposure.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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