If I Were a Rich Man:
Caregiving in the Time of Coronavirus

If I Were A Rich Man: A Series
By Serena Saunders

Join Feminist Majority Foundation intern Serena Saunders each week in If I Were a Rich Man as she explores the topic of money–as it relates to feminism–to provide young people with the information and resources they need to survive, thrive, and fight economic injustices. This week, Serena’s explaining how responding to COVID-19 is creating a difficult choice for professional caregivers.

What’s the Impact of Coronavirus on Caregivers?

Caregivers, a category of workers that includes home and health aides, are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to effectively responding to the coronavirus. Guidance on how to stop the spread of the infectious disease generally recommends working from home and social distancing, but caregivers must report for hands-on work in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals, and homes–some of the most high-risk places for COVID-19. Caregiving work is underpaid and undervalued, affords workers little paid sick leave, and sometimes poor or no health insurance.

If caregivers stay home:

There’s less care for the elderly, ill, and disabled– groups most likely to be affected by coronavirus–who are considered high-risk for infection and generally have less cash for healthcare expenses associated with the virus. “We don’t have the luxury of telecommuting,” said Vanessa Jackson, a direct support professional who works with disabled people. Washington, D.C., where Jackson lives, and many other places across the country, already suffer from an existing shortage of caregivers. These pressures on the system will create a ripple effect, as more will likely be discharged from hospitals amidst a lack of hospital beds for coronavirus patients.  

If caregivers go into work:

They face numerous problems as a result. They may be exposed to coronavirus or risk exposing their patients to it. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is already in short supply and is being used primarily for healthcare professionals providing acute care to those with the virus. Plus, professional caregivers–who are overwhelmingly women–may shoulder unpaid and informal care duties as the pandemic goes on: their own children and other relatives may require care at home, making it more difficult for caregivers to do both their jobs at work and at home. 

This all, of course, assumes that caregivers still have a job amidst layoffs from their employing companies or cancellations from clients.

What Can Be Done to Support Caregivers?

There are two sides to assisting professional caregivers, according to Ai-jen Poo, founder and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. First, the CDC should provide caregivers with:

  • PPE;
  • Free coronavirus testing and treatment; and
  • Coronavirus prevention literature in a variety of languages.

Second, employers should provide paid sick days and flexible accommodations: “It is a good time for employers to reassure caregivers they will have a job, even if they need to stay home.” She also says that supporting caregivers is a critical long-term goal in order to maximize caregivers’ well-being, pointing to the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights which would grant professional caregivers “the same legal protections afforded to people in other professions and create new protections that pick up where old labor laws left off, providing for fair scheduling, time off, and other rights that would support resilience in times of crisis.”    

Why Is This A Feminist Issue?

According to PHI, which promotes quality direct care jobs as the foundation for quality care, the direct care workforce is about 86% female and majority (59%) people of color. 49% of this workforce have a high school degree or less. The median wage for professional caregivers is $12.27 per hour, with median annual earnings just over $20,000. 15% live under the poverty line and 44% are low-income but above the poverty line. 42% require public assistance, like Medicaid, food and nutrition assistance, and cash assistance. Coronavirus shouldn’t mean the end of caregiving as we know it–it should mean that we recognize the importance of caregivers and treat them accordingly.

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