Harkins: Time to start treating our caregivers fairly

At a recent rally at the state Capitol, certified nursing assistant Shelley Robinson recalled what happened when the nursing home she worked for ran out of food.

“Workers were using their own food stamps to run to the store and buy milk and cereal for our residents. We took turns buying snacks for our diabetic patients so their sugar would stay stable. Our paychecks bounced. We are here to take care of our residents, but who is taking care of us?”

Robinson’s story isn’t unique, and it isn’t new. Long before the pandemic, workers at Pennsylvania’s more than 700 nursing homes faced understaffed, overworked conditions – in some cases caring for more than 30 patients at a time.

This year, we took a huge step toward changing that dynamic by passing a state budget that increases the Medicaid reimbursement rate and allocates hundreds of millions to long-term care facilities statewide.

The funding – which has the potential to dramatically boost staff recruitment and retention – should open the door to progress and cooperation. 

Instead, as several thousand workers attempt to negotiate new union contracts, we are hearing reports that administrators are withholding key information, refusing to negotiate fairly and threatening to fire workers if they strike. That’s totally unacceptable. With lives at stake, home administrators need to start dealing fairly with workers – now.

Sounding the alarm

Caregivers are the heart and soul of our long-term care system. Without them, the system could not exist.

Many have devoted years of their lives to jobs that are incredibly stressful, physically demanding, emotionally draining and chronically low-paying. And many remained on the front lines working to save lives during the pandemic, despite deadly risks to their own safety.

For years, these workers have been sounding the alarm that they need more resources for patient care – and a living wage that allows them to sustain their own families while caring for their patients. For years, they have rallied for better funding – and greater accountability to know how that funding is being spent.

Now, with new funding in the budget, administrators should be listening and looking to meet those demands. Instead, we are learning that they are withholding information about staffing and agency use, stonewalling efforts at fair bargaining and threatening jobs. Things are so bad that workers recently filed Unfair Labor Practice charges against several facilities.

I fought hard to get hundreds of millions of dollars into the new state budget to raise caregiver wages and improve staffing so that residents can get the care they deserve. I want to see these resources get to workers and the residents they care for.

I fought for this funding to save our collapsing nursing homes – not for residents and workers to continue to suffer.

Long-term caregivers face back-breaking labor – including cleaning and turning patients, changing soiled bedsheets and maneuvering heavy equipment – all while providing lifesaving care and emotional support. Yet many earn little more than fast-food and convenience store workers.

If we expect them to be there for our most vulnerable residents, we need to ensure that they have the safe staffing levels, living wages and benefits they deserve.

That will be key to successful recruitment efforts, as well. Growing the caregiving workforce will be essential for meeting future state regulations that will increase staff-to-patient ratios and for relieving the overflow of patients that can strain emergency rooms and hospitals.

Most importantly, it will be critical for meeting a rapidly growing demand: It is estimated that by 2030, more than 4 million Pennsylvanians – nearly 30% of our population – will be 60 or over. As they continue to age, the majority will require some form of long-term care. We have to be ready for them with key resources.

The industry is in a position to provide these. But progress can only start with fair and transparent relations between home administrators and staff.

Caregivers have been sounding the alarm for decades. It’s time for nursing home administrators to stop stonewalling and start listening. Our most vulnerable are depending on it.

State Rep. Pat Harkins represents Pennsylvania’s 1st Legislative District.