High injury rate and lack of benefits plague NYC home health aides

High injury rate and lack of benefits plague NYC home health aides

By Fern White-Hilsenrath

It’s a windy but clear autumn day and senior citizens from the Washington Heights area are shuffling into the Moriah Senior Center. Some stroll in on their own steam, others are pushed in wheelchairs and still others come leaning on the arm of their home health aides. The aides set up their charges at tables covered with plastic covering, and move away to sit in a row of chairs along the side while the seniors eat lunch and catch up with their friends.

The Inwood/Washington Heights community has one of the largest concentrations of senior citizens in Manhattan. On a visit to any area facility — the supermarket, post office or park, it is quite common to see seniors accompanied by their aides dressed in tell-tale scrubs and comfortable non-slip shoes.

Over the last ten years, the number of New Yorkers over the age of 65 grew by 19 percent, according to Census data. In 2012, the number of older New Yorkers passed the one million mark. There are now more people over the age of 65 in the city than there are children ages 10 and younger.

This huge increase in the senior population has caused a considerable demand for Home Health Aides. The work that these aides do, is central to the senior’s health, comfort and survival.

Home health aides are faced with physical and sexual abuse and a high rate of on the job injury. In addition, there is no paid sick-leave, no paid time off, no paid vacations, inconsistent working hours and a median pay that has barely moved in 10 years.

Home health aides are a lifeline for the city’s growing senior population and make it possible for them to remain safely in their own homes. Marleen Graham, a Jamaican immigrant, has been a caregiver in the city for about 15 years.

“On a day to day basis, I go shopping, housekeeping, and cooking and also bathing and dressing and make sure that their teeth is clean, take them to senior centers, take he and his wife to the doctor and do laundry,” say Marleen Graham who has been a home health aide for 15 years.

Marleen like other home health aides earn the minimum wage and work long hours, she gets no paid sick leave, no paid vacation, and no health insurance a problem which fuels the high labor turnover in the industry.

Recent research from PHI Consulting reports that one in five home care workers is living below the federal poverty line and more than 50 percent of home health aides rely on some form of public assistance.

“The poor quality of home care jobs — characterized by low wages, insufficient hours and high poverty rates — makes it hard to attract and retain workers at a time when we need them the most,” PHI’s Steven Campbell said recently.

There are approximately 1500 Home Care Agencies serving the five boroughs. However, only about 50 of these agencies are unionized, meaning they provide benefits such as paid sick days, paid vacation and health insurance. Unionized agencies pay between $1 and $3 more than their non-union counterparts.

Fifty-two-year-old Rafaella Holloway has been an aide for three years. She first cared for her aging parents, then family friends before a close friend told her she’d be a perfect fit as a paid caregiver. Working conditions were not at the forefront of her mind until six months ago when she donated one of her kidneys to her husband.

“I requested for 30 days, which was given to me, but during those 30 days of course, there was no pay. It was in this moment that I realized, this is really necessary, it would be great if I had that safety net, something to cover me for that time that that I had to get well and heal… The importance of quality health insurance is crucial to the quality of life,” she said.

This especially true given that on-the-job injury rate is one of the highest in the entire country, according to the Bureau of Labor. These injuries range from muscular-skeletal injuries from lifting clients to falls, and even to acts of violence from the family members or the care recipient themselves. Marleen knows this scenario quite well.

“It is very disturbing because of the clients, even though they have dementia, they hit you, kick, punch you in the mouth, scratch you. I mean you are told not to take it personally, but if it continues like every day, it’s very hard to work in pain. They uses (sic) anything they catch to stab you and it hurts. So, you really have to love that job to continue doing it,” she said.

Nine out of 10 workers in the sector are women between the ages of 20 to 64, and these women sometimes have to deal with sexual harassment and abuse. However, agencies do not back up their workers when they complain.

“When I worked with this person a male, he likes touching your breast. For instance, if you tell him not to do it, he said well, if I can’t touch your breast then you can’t work here, and when you let the agency know, they just tell you that if you wanna go, go. If you don’t wanna go then don’t go,” Marleen said.

A recent investigation New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs found that Home health aides were also being abused by their agencies. Aides interviewed reported inadequate compensation, not being provided the benefits they were guaranteed by law. This lead to administrative trials, fines and in some cases restitution. Even though problems persist, the home health aides are still one of the fastest growing occupations and is expected to add one million more jobs by 2026.

High injury rate and lack of benefits plague NYC home health aides

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