Social distancing doesn’t work for home care attendants. It’s their job to be as close to their clients as possible—possibly closer than anyone else in their lives—whether they are bathing them, feeding them, or putting on their lipstick in the morning. The intimate nature of home care work makes it both a clinical necessity and a psychological art. And during a pandemic, it can be lethal.
Florine Simpson, a home care aide who works for a private agency in New York City—part of a workforce of more than 300,000 statewide—has tried her best to protect herself. Early on in the outbreak, before workers were being provided with adequate protective equipment, she purchased her own protective gear, including a Tyvek suit she bought online. But as she moves from home to home over the course of a week, working twelve-hour days at the $15 minimum wage, she knows there are no guarantees.
“Usually with home care, you’re hands-on,” she said. “You’re one-on-one. You have to be there. A lot of people are elderly. They can’t walk without support. Some people are bed-bound, and in my situation, I have a little bit of all of the above, on top of an autistic individual . . . [with them] I’m dealing with the parent also, working alongside with me.”
Though she wears her protective gear when visiting clients, she said, they do not wear masks, and some are wary of her. Sometimes her clients say, “‘You’re the one bringing it in, so if you get me sick . . .’ You get a lot of that. ‘If you get me sick, it’s on you, it’s your fault.’ There’s a lot of guilt that you feel. So there’s a lot of sadness in home care. You take a lot.”
Simpson has also filled in for coworkers who have opted to stay home to protect themselves. She personally could not stomach cutting her ties with her clients in the middle of this crisis.
“You become their family members,” she said. Many of her clients, including those with serious disabilities and dementia, do not have other family members to support them, she said, and “can’t really call anybody to help [them].”
“I’ve been in this field eighteen years,” she said. “So why would I turn my back now, when I know they need me to feed them? . . . There’s a bond that you build in home care, so you don’t want to leave them alone to deal with this whole thing. It’s kind of like you’re together in this.”
But the work leaves emotional bruises. “I’m not going to lie,” she said. “I have a lot of moments where I’m crying before I go to work.”
Given how the disease seems to keep spreading uncontrollably, she added:
I’m hoping that I’m not just wearing this gear for no reason. . . . This gear is hot. You can’t breathe. I find myself having a lot of anxiety before I get out of the car—even crying. The building [of an older] lady that I take care of lost six people in one day. She wanted me to make a run to the store, so when I made that run, I sat in my car and boo-hooed like a big baby, because I was so afraid that I’ve got to work here.
On top of the stress of caring for others while trying to avoid infection, the pandemic has bled into her life outside of work. In the previous two weeks, she said, she had lost eight people including her uncle, who passed away a week after her sister-in-law died. A few weeks prior to that, her grandfather died suddenly. She remembered him as “a pretty healthy man” before he went to the hospital with what had seemed to be dehydration.
“I’ve had a lot of losses in the past two weeks,” she said. “I’m just hoping that there’s some kind of relief soon for all of us that are out here in the field, because we’ve been out so much at work.”
Simpson hopes that the pandemic will help more people realize that home care workers “deserve to be treated [as] an equal to the other people in the medical field.” Having been with her company, along with her union, 1199SEIU, for eighteen years, she said, she thinks her work is “definitely worth more than $15 an hour.”
She is indispensable to her clients, she said, “because if someone can’t be there to feed them, and the family members are not doing it, or they don’t live close, or they just can’t make it . . . you are their only person. So you do see how essential we are.”
Reflecting on the pandemic relief bills that Congress passed, she said, “I hear these numbers, billions and trillions of dollars, [and I think]: that kind of money is there?” But it’s not just about money, either, she said. “We’ve got to take care of humanity a lot better than we do. People don’t want all this stuff. They just want to live a regular life, and watch their children grow.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.