“It was hard to come to work this morning,” she said, choking up. Her husband is an ex-smoker, and she worries about his lungs. “I do feel like it’ll be my fault if I bring it home.” Scott could quit, but her family would be plunged into poverty.
Like Scott, many health workers struggle to make ends meet on low salaries. Adarra Benjamin, a home health- and personal-care aide in Chicago, makes just above the city’s $13 minimum wage. She gets no paid time off and no benefits. She’s able to get health care only through her union, the Service Employees International Union. “This is not something that you can really live off of,” Benjamin told me. She’s constantly making decisions about where her paycheck goes: food or transportation? Rent or her mother’s diabetes medications? “It really is a struggle; it really is,” she said.
Benjamin works a grueling schedule to care for multiple patients. Starting at 9 a.m., she runs errands, cooks, and tidies for her client who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. After a three-and-a-half-hour break, she heads to her next client, her great-grandmother, helping her shower and fixing her a small meal before her great-grandmother falls asleep. Benjamin’s day ends only at midnight, after she helps her final client undress, shower, and get ready for bed, and changes her client’s cat litter. “I go a lot of days when I forget to eat,” she said. She repeats this five days a week.
These days, Benjamin is afraid she’ll be exposed to the coronavirus and bring COVID-19 home to her mother, who has diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Benjamin has been “using hand sanitizer every five seconds”; she keeps a bottle in her purse and has one attached to the outside too. “I know it sounds crazy, but I have washed the same jacket five times in the last week because I brush past people or people have walked by and touched me,” she said. But she has to keep going to work. “I have no other choice,” she said. “My bills still have to be paid.” So she’s “compartmentalized” the fear, turning off the news.
Hughes, the Seattle nursing-home aide, is struggling to make ends meet too. Her work “used to be considered a pretty good job; you could support your family, pay your rent and your mortgage,” she said. “Now we’re competing literally with McDonald’s for wages.” The starting pay for her job is $15 an hour. With nearly 17 years of experience, Hughes makes less than $17.50. The cheapest health-care plan that her employer offers still has a $5,000 deductible, so she gets insurance through her state’s Medicaid expansion. Hughes and her husband live paycheck to paycheck and share one car. Most months, she can’t find the gas money for the three-hour drive to visit her family, which means she’s met her baby niece only once.
“Maybe if the job were much, much easier, you could justify [it] not paying a lot,” Hughes said. “But the reality is, it’s incredibly hard.” Hughes and her co-workers are on their feet and “dealing with human tragedy every single day.”