As a long-time caregiver in a Tampa Bay nursing home, I’ve been on the frontlines of this historic and deadly pandemic. Fighting COVID-19 has taken a very real physical, mental and emotional toll on me and fellow workers. We take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, and are exposed daily to this terrible threat. We work in fear of getting sick and spreading the virus to our own families, loved ones and friends.
I contracted COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic and still experience many of the “long-haul” effects of the disease. And now to add insult to injury, Florida politicians and industry lobbyists are using our plight as a cynical smokescreen to protect big companies against COVID-related lawsuits.
While there are so many other real needs and priorities for Floridians, the GOP-led Legislature and their rich donors are in a rush to give blanket legal immunity to health care operators and facilities, such as SB 74 sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes.
The senator and industry insiders are claiming this legislation is for workers, calling us heroes and lifesavers to curry support from the public and other lawmakers. But this is false, exploitive and like a case of “stolen valor.” It’s the profits of big companies they want to protect.
In fact, in the case of even serious negligence by an employer, the law would hurt workers by preventing us the ability to recover damages in court. This is yet another offense to the very caregivers that the political and industry insiders are claiming to champion.
I’m not referring to my own facility, but this is very upsetting to me and tens of thousands of long-term care workers in Florida — that our safety and our rights don’t matter as much as large corporations and operators, even those with negligent standards and scores.
If lawmakers and the nursing home industry truly wanted to protect and treat frontline workers as heroes, they would support a living wage. We have a very important and difficult job taking care of the most in need: elderly, frail and sick Floridians, and the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Yet the average wage of a Certified Nursing Assistant in Florida nursing homes is $11 per hour and many of us can’t even afford our own medical care. We’re clearly not a group that will be targeted for lawsuits and financial claims, but politicians and lobbyists are using us as human shields in their manipulative PR campaign.
Those claiming to be on our side now have largely ignored our pleas for real protections such as quarantine and hazard pay, paid time off for testing and vaccinations and more. In a historic pandemic with nursing homes as the epicenter of infections and deaths, they should have made sure we had masks, gloves gowns and other PPE, honest information and other protections to do our jobs safely and keep our patients healthy.
But no, they instead want to protect the profits of a multi-billion-dollar industry and shield even the worst actors from legal action and accountability. It’s sad that those in power here in Florida — from Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Brandes and other lawmakers and lobbyists want to pass laws like SB 74 and have the nerve to claim it is for the benefit of frontline workers.
As we continue to fight this pandemic, healthcare workers need true leadership and support –– not false praise, fake protection, misleading legislation, stolen valor and shameless insults.
Christina Chiger is a Certified Nursing Assistant and a member of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union of healthcare workers in Florida.