Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR Health

Why Some CNAs Are Staying Home During The Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been especially hard-hit during the coronavirus pandemic. And as they've battled the virus, many facilities are also struggling with understaffing. Some owners are blaming unemployment checks from the federal government that they say have led many certified nursing assistants to stay home. Gabrielle Emanuel from member station WGBH in Boston has this report.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Shanna LaFountain (ph) has been a nursing assistant in New England for 20 years. But about two months ago, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, she stopped working.

SHANNA LAFOUNTAIN: I feel guilty. It was an extremely hard decision to make.

EMANUEL: A mother of three, LaFountain says she made the decision once her children's schools closed, and their learning went online.

LAFOUNTAIN: My son was, you know, not answering teachers, not doing assignments. It was too much. I had to be home with my children.

EMANUEL: She now gets unemployment, receiving $600 a week from the federal government on top of typical state jobless benefits. This safety net is available not only to people who've been let go but also to people who quit their job because of the virus.

LAFOUNTAIN: Right now, it's a $600 a week pandemic pay. I am making more than I was when I was working.

EMANUEL: She used to work for a temporary nursing agency called Intelycare that helps nursing homes and long-term care facilities fill their empty shifts. David Coppins runs Intelycare, which operates in more than a dozen states. He says about 30% of their certified nursing assistants, or CNAs, are on the sidelines, choosing to take unemployment during the pandemic.

DAVID COPPINS: And without them, you've got administrators, cafeteria workers - you've got all sorts of nurses performing the CNA duties. And then you just have people that aren't getting the attention because there's just not enough people working.

EMANUEL: Coppins says in a typical nursing home, about two-thirds of the workforce are CNAs. They often have the closest relationship with patients, seeing early signs of health problems. Long-term care facilities call Intelycare when they have unfilled shifts. Coppins says before the pandemic, they filled about 80% of those shifts. Now they're lucky to fill 50%. Micha Shalev co-owns two dementia care facilities in Massachusetts.

MICHA SHALEV: I'm talking with administrator day and night, and they're all crying about this.

EMANUEL: So far, none of Shalev's residents have been diagnosed with the virus, but that's taken a lot of extra work and extra precautions, he says. And his facility and others are doing it with far less staff than they need. Shalev attributes the challenge in part to those unemployment checks.

SHALEV: I'm not against paying people for the unemployment, or those people that lost their job. But in order to do justice, they should be paying all the front-line worker in the health care at least the same, if not even more.

EMANUEL: Shalev has resorted to offering his staff bonuses during the pandemic. But he says that's not realistic for all facilities, especially as the industry faces major financial challenges. Shalev thinks the best solution is for the government to supplement the wages of nurses and CNAs. Congress is debating whether to extend the extra $600 in unemployment support beyond July. CNA Shanna LaFountain says, for her, it's key.

LAFOUNTAIN: Without that 600, I would have to go back at that point.

EMANUEL: She says that she'd have no choice but to leave her children and return to work. And while she does miss her patients, she thinks the pay rates don't match the risks.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.