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Home Care Workers Keep Up the Fight; Demand Back Pay, End to 24-Hour Shifts

December 11, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

“We demand you right your wrong by paying us the stolen wages and overtime you owe us and to stop the 24-hour shifts immediately.” — home health aides rally outside the First Chinese Presbyterian home care agency this week.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—With speeches and chants in English, Spanish, and Chinese, about 100 home health-care workers and supporters rallied in front of the First Chinese Presbyterian home-care agency’s Lower Manhattan offices Dec. 11. They were demanding that it pay them for in full for 24-hour shifts they’d worked going back to 2015.

 “First Chinese Presbyterian and its insurance companies have got to pay the workers now. We also say, ‘Stop the 24-hour shifts now,’” JoAnn Lum of the Ain’t I A Woman Campaign told the rally. “Something is very wrong with the system. Why is all this money going to 24-hour care, but the workers are only paid for half their work?”

Home-care workers who do 24-hours shifts are often paid for only 13 of those hours, on the grounds that it’s legally required for them to get eight hours off for sleep and three for meals. In March, the state Court of Appeals cited those regulations when it reversed lower-court rulings that the workers should be paid for the full 24 hours they were in their client’s home. But, an Ain’t I A Woman Campaign spokesperson told LaborPress, it also held that workers could claim pay for 24 hours if they could prove they had not gotten five hours sleep or three hours worth of meal breaks.

A group of 60 workers filed a class-action suit against First Chinese Presbyterian in 2016 on just those grounds. They said they routinely have to get up in the middle of the night to take clients to the toilet, change their diapers, or move them so they don’t get bedsores.

“Those of us that are doing the work, we know we’re not getting five hours sleep,” Leticia Panama Rivas, one of the lead plaintiffs in the suit, told the rally. “In Ecuador, we didn’t have 24-hour shifts. It’s slavery.”

A group of about 15 people then tried to enter the building to deliver a letter demanding back pay to First Chinese Presbyterian Executive Director Jocelyn Lee. “You collude with insurance companies to continue the 24-hour workdays,” it said. “We demand you right your wrong by paying us the stolen wages and overtime you owe us and to stop the 24-hour shifts immediately.”

Security guards and police blocked the doors, eventually letting in Panama Rivas, who uses a walker, and an escort.

“The letter was delivered. Now we have to keep the pressure up,” Yanin Peña of the Ain’t I A Woman Campaign told the rally.

First Chinese Presbyterian did not respond to a phone message from LaborPress.

Hard-pressed home health aides care for others at the cost of their own well-being.

Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), who spoke briefly, introduced a bill last spring that would prohibit employers from requiring health aide to work more than 12 hours per day or 50 hours in a week, except in emergencies—and a staffing shortage wouldn’t qualify as an emergency except in limited circumstances. The measure has 12 cosponsors in the Assembly and five in the state Senate, led by Sen. Roxanne Persaud (D-Brooklyn). It did not receive a committee hearing in either house during the 2019 session.

Epstein told LaborPress that he’s trying to drum up support from unions and advocates before the 2020 session begins.

Panama Rivas, a 42-year-old immigrant from Quito, Ecuador, worked for First Chinese Presbyterian for eight and a half years before she became disabled, she says. Having to lift clients, push their wheelchairs, and move their bodies into different positions eventually wore out her neck, shoulders, and back.

She had her first surgery in 2011, she adds, but “I kept working until my body could take no more.”

She believes that having two different workers do 12-hour shifts would create more jobs and be healthier for both them and the clients. 

“We want to change the system,” she says. “To create more jobs and reduce the burden. And to give the clients proper care.”

When workers get adequate rest, she adds, they’ll be more engaged with the clients—and they won’t get injured like she did. 

December 11, 2019

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