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A Coronavirus Outbreak At Senior Care Facilities Could Trigger Staffing Shortages

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Photo by Amita Sharma

Above: Pictured above are "gratitude gifts" handed out to caregivers at Belmont Village Senior Living as a gesture of gratitude more than a week into lock down to stem the spread of COVID-19, March 23, 2020.

As senior care residences in San Diego County brace for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak,

there is another potential crisis looming: a caregiver shortage.

Caregivers bathe, dress, feed, and give medicine to seniors as well as help them move around. And they do this work for low pay and often little or no benefits.

Listen to this story by Amita Sharma.

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The shortfall of these workers has concerned California lawmakers and industry executives for some time. But the rapid and deadly spread of the virus at a Washington state nursing home, that has so far claimed nearly two dozen lives, has intensified the angst.

It has also raised the question of whether there will be enough caregivers to tend to the aged at senior residential communities if workers test positive COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

By 2030, there will be more than 9 million people over 65 in California. An estimated 1.3 million more caregivers will be needed by 2026. But recruiting and retaining enough workers to help with seniors' upkeep is proving difficult, a situation that might only be compounded if existing caregivers get sick with COVID-19.

“I’m very worried about what might happen,” said Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, (D-San Bernardino) who unsuccessfully pushed a bill last year to create a caregiver corps to deal with California’s growing elderly population.

There is hope that the current crisis will raise awareness of this longstanding problem, said Robert Espinoza, vice president of policy for PHI, a national elder-care advocacy group.

“The horror of this moment and the learning opportunity of this moment are bringing to light all the flaws and all the inequities,” Espinoza said.“There is a growing shortage of direct care workers because these jobs are so poorly paid.”

He said the median wage of a caregiver in California is $13. About 35 percent don’t get paid medical leave. And around 13 percent don’t have healthcare.

“What this means is if direct care workers can’t support their own health and finances and stay afloat, their clients won’t get the support they need,” Espinoza said. “Until we transform the quality of these jobs, we won’t be effectively prepared to weather an epidemic of this nature.”

At least three senior care managers told KPBS over the last several days they believe they have a pool of caregivers to fall back on if some staff contract COVID-19. But they also expressed worry about what lies ahead.

Espinoza says it’s difficult to know whether some caregivers will be tempted to go to work even if they’re sick because they’re worried about paying their bills.

San Diego County’s senior residential communities are on lockdown and are taking caregivers’ temperatures questioning them about their travels before their shifts. But they aren’t being tested for COVID-19.

One caregiver, who did not want her name used for fear of employment consequences, described the dilemma facing her and many others.

“They don’t pay us much,” she said. “We need to work. Everyone has a family to support, has rent. We have to pay for college. We are really hard workers.”

She said she and her colleagues are determined to soldier through any staff shortages.

“We’re going to do double shifts,” she said. “But I’m scared like other people. I’m worried that it’s going to be out of control. We’re doing our best. We’re doing our part. We’re washing out hands, washing the clients’ hands, wiping down tables and chairs constantly.”

Belmont Village Senior Living thanked staff several days into the lockdown by giving workers “gratitude gifts,” filled with food and notes.

Patricia Will, founder and chief executive officer of Belmont Village Senior Living, which operates 31 facilities, is urging everyone to share in the gratitude.

“In this time of crisis, I’d like to ask everyone in San Diego to join me in a shout-out for the terrific workers that are working in our senior housing communities day and night, my workforce and all of them, Will said. “We really appreciate everything you’re doing.”

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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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