As Rhode Island nursing homes slowly turn the corner on COVID-19, we must make lasting changes to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening again. COVID-19 did not create this crisis, it just revealed the flaws of a long-term care system that has been broken for years.

It is nursing home residents who suffer most with over 1,460 COVID-19 fatalities, making us third in the nation for the percentage of COVID-19 nursing home deaths. New studies show the relationship between short staffing and the spread of COVID – R.I. ranked 41st in the nation, and worst in New England, for the amount of daily resident direct care in quarter two of 2020.

For decades, short staffing, poverty wages, and a lack of respect given to a workforce that is largely female, disproportionately Black and increasingly immigrant created high turnover and dragged down the quality of care.

Three-fourths of the nation’s nursing homes failed to meet federal staffing expectations for registered nurses – before the pandemic. What’s more, a recent New York Times investigation found that nursing homes have been submitting misleading information about staffing and patient safety to increase their CMS star rating, thus increasing profits.

For caregivers like Manuela Suggs, CNA short staffing is a constant reality. Her nursing home has been bought and sold by various for-profit entities, most recently Genesis Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest nursing home companies. Genesis recently awarded its CEO, George Hager Jr., a $5.2 million “retention payment” despite claims that COVID-19 would drive the company into bankruptcy while receiving $254 million in federal aid.

The starting wage for R.I. nursing assistants is just $12.34 or $23,693 a year, which falls far short of the estimated annual pre-tax earnings of $66,057 required to meet the basic needs of a single parent family. The story of R.I. caregivers is the story of low-wage workers of color nationwide. That’s why Fuerza Laboral has been helping workers organize for years to improve their workplace conditions, earn better wages and create institutional changes that will better prevent injustices that disproportionately impact immigrants and people of color.

The Nursing Home Staffing and Quality Care Act (Goodwin S-2, Slater H-5012) will a) Establish a minimum staffing standard of 4.1 hours of resident care per day, which is the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid services guideline; b) Increase wages to better recruit and retain caregivers; c) Invest in ongoing training opportunities. The state Senate has passed this vital piece of legislation; now we need the House and the governor to follow as thousands of lives depend on it.

Heiny Maldonado,

Executive director, Fuerza Laboral

Central Falls

Manuela Suggs

CNA and Pawtucket resident

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