Home care workers confront the dilemma of caring for clients during COVID-19

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Home care workers help people with basic daily tasks, such as getting a little exercise and making meals. Some workers are breaking social distancing rules to do their jobs. Photo credit: Pxhere.

Thousands of people in LA County can’t fully care for themselves, so they rely on home care workers for daily tasks such as meal prep and bathing. Now these workers are facing a dilemma. How do they protect themselves when their livelihoods are about taking care of others? 

Pearl Gonzalez is one of two home care providers who serve a woman with schizophrenia and only one kidney.

Gonzalez says she has to be close to clients to do her job well, breaking the rules of social distancing. But she is concerned that she could pass the virus to her family. 

I don't want to take the chance of me possibly being a carrier and taking it to my family. I would just die if [they] got it because of me bringing it home,” she says. 

That possibility became real this month when the other provider came in contact with a person who had the virus and self-quarantined. 

Now Gonzalez is the sole provider for her client, who could also have COVID-19. Gonzalez doesn’t have protective equipment. 

Gonzalez says she tried to get a mask from the county, but they didn’t have any. All they could give her was a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a box of wipes. 

It doesn't make me feel safe,” Gonzalez says. “The nurses at the hospitals, they have some equipment and they're catching it. What's going to keep me from getting it when I really don't have what I need?

To protect herself, Gonzalez is distancing from her son and her father, who are staying with other relatives. 

Now that she’s home alone, the isolation is hard to bear. Usually when her shift ends, she looks forward to seeing her grandchildren or watching TV with family.

“I'm feeling very lost, very lonely. And it’s just hard because this is not something that I've ever experienced before,” she says. 

Some days, Gonzalez contemplates whether the work is it. She makes less than $25 per hour, which she doesn’t think is enough to risk her life. 

In those moments, she thinks of her client, whose family lives out of state. Gonzalez says for the time being, she and her client are the only company they have.

“If she does have [the virus], and I'm doing everything that I possibly can, I could probably save her life. That makes me try harder because if I could save her life, then maybe I could save my own,” she says.

Mackenzie Bath is living the reality Gonzalez fears. She’s sick and cannot work. 

Bath usually cares for a 23-year-old man with autism. Now she’s quarantined inside her home with the virus. 

Bath is still on her parent’s health care plan, but her finances are up in the air. She has to negotiate with her client’s family for more sick days.

“Rent is going to be a struggle. If I can get one of these two weeks paid, then I think then I'll be okay. But if I have to go both weeks unpaid, I'm going to have some issues,” she says.

Bath’s client’s family is having some issues too. 

Judy Mark, the mother of Bath’s client and director of a disability rights organization, says they are also in quarantine and struggling to care for their son on their own. 

Mark is immunocompromised and can’t be around her son, so most of her son’s care is being completed by her husband, who is also running his full-time legal practice from home. 

Mark adds she can’t wait for Bath to come back to work. She realizes that she couldn’t get by without the help. 

“The forgotten heroes [in the pandemic] are the people who are coming in every day and supporting people with disabilities,” she says.

Carmen Roberts has been a home care provider for 15 years and wishes more people saw her work in the same way. 

Recently, Roberts and her cousin have been caring for their 98-year-old aunt. 

Roberts says spending hours in close proximity to a client can be too much to handle. 

Both clients and providers want to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus, which can put them at odds. Sometimes clients are refusing to let their providers in for fear of the virus, she says.

Roberts adds that the conflict between providers and clients can sometimes be so great that home care workers feel that they are on their own. 

She points out that when the pandemic began, people rushed to help  health care workers, sending them masks and protective equipment. However, she has needed the same materials but hasn’t received support. 

“We take care of mothers, fathers, grandparents, children of not only ours, but other folks whose lives depend on us. So we're really on the frontline, and we are an essential part of getting through this crisis right now,” she says.

She adds that in recent weeks, she’s been getting calls to care for a new group of clients: people with respiratory problems who are now recovering from COVID-19.