Corporations got COVID ‘immunity.’ Direct care workers need protections, too.

Legislation to protect health care facilities from COVID-19-related lawsuits left direct care workers behind. (Photo by Getty Images)

IowaCareGivers and many other advocacy groups opposed the COVID-19 “immunity” bill that was signed into law in June. The new law protects health care “providers” at the expense of direct care workers and other health care workers.

Under Senate File 2338, health care “providers” are defined as owners of nursing homes and other care locations, and health care professionals such as doctors, nurses and anyone who is certified from being sued during COVID-19.  The apparent exceptions are in cases in which an individual was hospitalized or died because of COVID-19 and the provider showed willful or reckless misconduct intended to cause harm or acted with malice, all difficult to prove.

But what about direct care workers and other health care workers?

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, New Hartford, said Senate File 2338 was needed because “Iowa caregivers should be protected for their heroism, selflessness, and for doing the right thing during an unprecedented and rapidly evolving situation.”

We sincerely thank him and certainly agree, and we at Iowa CareGivers are the first to stand up for direct care workers. But it’s unclear whether Senate File 2338 actually provides adequate protections for workers.

Iowa can’t build a strong direct care workforce until we get serious about addressing workers’ needs.  Despite the best efforts of advocates, for many years, elected officials have failed to act on legislation that would bring stability to this workforce. Even now in the midst of a pandemic, this workforce is not a priority.

These equivalent protections for direct care workers are needed now:

  • Hazard pay
  • Health care coverage for COVID-related care or treatment and at all times
  • State recognition of COVID-19 as a condition eligible for workers’ compensation
  • Increased child care subsidies and particularly if public schools are unable to resume normal classroom schedules.
  • Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Required onsite rapid COVID-19 testing for all residents and staff also proposed by AARP Iowa.
  • Required disclosure to workers when there is a single positive case at their place of work.

The pandemic has exposed a truth about a direct care workforce that was in crisis long before COVID-19 and Senate File 2338 represents more of the same. It ignores workers who are actually risking and losing their lives. These workers are not low-level, low-skilled, disposable workers seeking an opportunity to sue their employers. They are hard-working, caring individuals who take pride in what they do and often serve as extensions of families, and deserve equivalent if not enhanced protections.

As one direct care worker told me: “We aren’t looking for a handout, we just need a helping hand.”

Health- and long-term-care employers have struggled to find and keep direct care workers for decades. Because of the past failures to respond to and invest in this workforce, and the compounding factors related to COVID-19, the future is bleak.

The bill, as written, is vague and while it may protect doctors, nurses, and certified staff from lawsuits filed by a resident or family member, it is our understanding that it would be difficult for certified nursing assistants and other health care workers or even nursing home administrators to hold the nursing home owner responsible if they are forced to work when sick, not provided PPE, or are not told when there are positive COVID-19 cases in the workplace.

Some workers haven’t been informed of positive cases or outbreaks in the facility where they work until it becomes public information. By then they’ve already been exposed and have unknowingly exposed family and community members. In addition, we are receiving an increasing number of reports from those being forced to work while sick.

Do businesses need certain protections during a pandemic and other disasters?  Yes. We know employers have struggled to find PPE for reasons that can be debated. How can they be held accountable if they can’t get the supplies needed? Nevertheless, the nursing home industry should be granted protections ONLY if equivalent protections are provided to workers and nursing home residents who share the risk and too often with their lives.

Iowa CareGivers has done its best to work with the governor’s department heads to help distribute COVID-19 resources and guidelines, and aid in the response and recovery effort.  It was disappointing to see Gov. Kim Reynolds share her COVID-19 press conference podium with only nursing home industry and other business leaders, while those on the front lines, residents, their family members, and advocates were not invited.

Recently, the health care work group of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board scheduled a series of public listening sessions related to COVID-19 preparation and recovery hearing from others in the community and we are grateful for that. We hope that in the end the listening sessions result in the governor taking steps shared by stakeholders, including the equivalent protections for direct care workers as outlined above.

We realize the pressure the governor is under and few people would want to be in her shoes, but she and others probably wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of a direct care worker or nursing home resident right now, either. They need our gratitude, compassion, and action.  They’ve earned it!