What the Pandemic Has Been Like for 2 Direct-Service Workers
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Like her clients, Shaw has also stopped going anywhere outside of work and home, fearful that she will contract Covid and infect residents and co-workers. People with developmental disabilities are at greater risk of getting Covid, being hospitalized, and dying from the virus. Shaw’s groceries are delivered to her curb, she can’t go to the gym, and church services are over a video call. She loves to shop, and that has been taken from her, too. All the while, she has been working longer hours.
The normally social Shaw has become agitated and short with people. The home’s residents have also been on edge, throwing temper tantrums and arguing. “I had stomach problems. I called my therapist during the Christmas holidays because it became so hectic for me,” Shaw says. “Therapy is really going to be needed after this for the staff.”
The Arc of Central Alabama is one of more than 600 chapters of the Arc, a 70-year-old disability-rights and -services organization. Finding and retaining staff for challenging low-wage jobs has always been tough — turnover rates of up to 50 percent are not uncommon, says Peter Berns, Arc’s CEO. Early in the pandemic, staffing was a problem. He says 70 percent of the group’s chapters reported that some workers refused to come to work, and about 40 percent had employees who quit.
The central Alabama group has made some changes to make things easier on their employees. Staff no longer have to go to the food bank to pick up food for the home. Instead, it’s delivered. Executive staff members call to check on the residents and employees. Some show up in person to ask what they can do to help — something Shaw really appreciates. But the organization is limited in what it can do.
Finances are — and have always been — tight for the Arc of Central Alabama. The state’s reimbursement rate for services is so low that it is often paid less than minimum wage for workers’ time. The organization makes up the difference with private donations, says CEO Chris Stewart. Thanks to Covid grants from the United Way of Central Alabama, the group hasn’t laid off any employees and has been able to provide hazard pay. It has also allowed people to roll over their vacation time. Managers often show up to thank frontline staff and pick up shifts to show their solidarity. The organization has tried to be as flexible as possible with hours, knowing that everyone’s needs are different during the crisis.
“We understand there is a lot of stress in the households of the people we work with and the people that we serve,” Stewart says.
Anna Delgado has always loved interacting with people. As a community health advocate with Providence Community Health Centers in Rhode Island, she met with people in their homes and in shelters to help them apply for government benefits and services. Then in March, she was sent home. She now feels like a telemarketer. “You are just now sitting behind a screen with a bunch of papers with names, and you have your headset,” she says. “That’s how our life has become.”
She sees the impact of Covid in her caseload. More people she helps have lost housing, can’t pay their bills, and need her help getting government assistance. That, in turn, puts more strain on her. Sometimes, she says, she works eight hours without a break, making meals with her laptop open and headset on. When her basement flooded earlier this year, she stayed on calls, talking to clients while bailing water. After her kids go to bed, she sometimes puts in another three or four hours.
Since last January, Delgado has been raising her kids on her own, shepherding her daughter and son through their online school, fielding questions about elementary-school math while on the phone with government agencies. One day bled into the next. “I felt like I was in jail because I never left,” she says. “Days come and go. I didn’t know what day it was.”
To create some separation and routine, she made her basement into a home office and classroom. But she still never gets any personal time away from her children. “I sometimes have to beg, ‘Can I just be in the bathroom?’” she says.
Delgado’s daughter just started going back to school in person, which helps, but her son is still at home. Delgado is grateful for the flexibility her employer provides. Otherwise, she might not be able to work at all. But she wishes she could get a better chair for work since her existing one is uncomfortable. And she has also incurred new expenses. She says she has to buy her own printer paper and toner to print out forms and pay for postage when she has to mail forms in. A small gesture like a gift card to get her kids pizza or take them out when that’s possible would go a long way, she says.
In a written statement, Providence Community Health Centers spokesman Brett Davey said that the organization appreciates the work its more than 500 employees have been doing during the pandemic, both in its health centers and at home. He said employees are regularly recognized with gift cards, have access to free mental-health counseling, and are encouraged to take work breaks as called for in the Fair Labor Standards Act. In addition, he wrote, office supplies are ordered for employees at their request.
“We take pride in supporting our team,” Davey wrote. “Clearly, we can do a better job of communicating about all the resources available to them.”
For her part, Delgado worries that she can’t go on like this forever, that she’ll lose her ability to empathize with the people she serves.
“I fear that I cannot continue long and hard enough, that I am going to burn out,” she says. “There’s no connection.”
That’s a legitimate fear, says Sarah Lawrence, director of the Community Health Worker Association of Rhode Island. Empathy and compassion are part of what motivates people like Delgado to work so hard in demanding jobs for little money. But they can get overwhelmed. “Community health workers play a special kind of role,” Lawrence says. “They’re especially prone to compassion fatigue.”
Delgado’s fighting to keep her work personal. When she gets a new case file, she quickly looks for a photograph of the person. “I want to see what they look like to connect with them,” she says. “For me, I need the human part of it.”