The Invisible COVID Workforce: Direct Care Workers for Those with Disabilities

By Kristi L. Kirschner, M.D., Lisa I. Iezzoni, M.D., and Tanya Shah: For More Info, Go Here…

Nancy, a single woman with cerebral palsy, experienced a decline in functioning in middle age. By using a personal care aide (PCA) a few hours each day to help her bathe, dress, cook, and clean, Nancy was able to live on her own for many years.

As her needs increased, she reached limits on what Medicaid would pay. Nancy made the difficult decision to move to assisted living with onsite 24/7 personal care support.

Then COVID-19 hit. Nancy knows the advantages of social distancing, but her care requires close physical contact. Her PCAs take public transportation and care for others besides Nancy. They do not have regular access to personal protective equipment (PPE) because of shortages and lack of priority status to obtain such equipment. The facility attempts to compensate by screening staff members’ temperatures and symptoms upon arrival and through reliance on handwashing, but Nancy worries this is not enough. She hears that in some states up to 50 percent of deaths from COVID-19 are people who reside in long-term-care facilities.

Nancy’s PCAs are one example of direct care workers — people who assist older adults and others with disabilities with daily tasks and long-term-care activities. Half of PCAs work in home-based settings. There are 4.5 million direct care workers in the United States. They are overwhelmingly women (86%), most are people of color (59%), and about a quarter are immigrants. About 18 percent live in poverty and another 44 percent have low incomes. More than half (53%) rely on some form of public assistance; a quarter have Medicaid (26%) or use supplemental nutrition (SNAP) benefits (24%). About one in five lack health insurance. More than half are middle-aged or older (30% over age 55), placing them at higher risk for infection with COVID-19.They are unlikely to have sick leave if they become ill. Given the aging American population, the direct care workforce is projected to be the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. labor market in the next decade.

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