Direct care workers are on the front lines caring for a vulnerable population during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the director of a nonprofit that cares for developmentally disabled adults in Washington County believes they are being overlooked.
Community Options Inc. supports people with disabilities in 10 states, including Pennsylvania, providing housing in small group home settings and job opportunities.
A national nonprofit, Community Options operates six homes in Washington County, and relies on its 35 direct care workers there to care for adults with disabilities in their homes and at jobs.
Bridget Haney, Western Region Director for Community Options, said the residents’ lives have been interrupted by the virus, and she is concerned about the safety of the staff, who are risking their lives to care for vulnerable residents.
Haney has asked Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Legislature to increase pay for direct care workers, who earn about $12 an hour, and to provide funding for nonprofit agencies to procure personal protective equipment, or PPE.
In Michigan, for example, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced last month a temporary pay increase of $2 an hour for direct care workers in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I admire the (direct care workers’) tenacity and can-do attitude. They are committed to the people we support, and they go above and beyond,” said Haney. “They have a great deal of compassion, and they’re doing this for $12 an hour, barely a wage they can live on. They are working every day to care for residents who might not understand the importance of social distancing and shelter at home rules.”
Haney said direct care workers have been implementing new schedules and routines for residents.
“We work with people who are used to a structured routine, and are used to going out every day, and now they have to stay home. For people with intellectual disabilities, it’s difficult for them to understand why they have to stay in,” said Haney. “It is a change to their routine and sense of normalcy, and our staff is trying to find in-home activities to keep them busy.”
One group home resident recently was hired at a local Giant Eagle store, so a direct care worker accompanies the resident to the store for the work shift.
The staff is worried about possibly bringing coronavirus into the homes or taking it home to their families, and also are dealing with a lack of PPE.
“There is none to be found. We made our own reusable washable masks,” said Haney, noting the Pennsylvania mandate that masks be worn when workers go into the homes of people they provide care for. “We’ve been able to find some masks, but it takes weeks for delivery. We haven’t been able to find gowns or gloves or other PPE. Thankfully, we haven’t had any COVID cases.”
Henry said her region has 100 surgical masks purchased at a significantly higher cost than normal, and a limited supply of hand sanitizer.
Some direct care workers have had to take time off because family members have become sick with flu-like symptoms.
“They honestly have gone unrecognized and it’s time to recognize the significance of the work they do,” said Haney.