NOEL KING, HOST:
A lot of companies are telling their employees to work from home to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus. But millions of people who work in fast food or retail or transit just can't do that. The same goes for caregivers. They look after vulnerable people, but often, they don't have health insurance. Here's NPR's Alina Selyukh.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Shelly Hughes says there are two things you must have to do her job - empathy and endurance.
SHELLY HUGHES: You have to have a big heart. You have to have a strong stomach. You have to have a strong back.
SELYUKH: She's a certified nurse's aide at a nursing home, and that also means another requirement. To get her work done, she has to physically be there.
HUGHES: You're helping residents that may be completely unable to dress themselves, feed themselves, toilet themselves. The great stuff is that you get to know wonderful people. I have so many grandmas and grandpas now.
SELYUKH: How many?
HUGHES: (Laughter) About 50.
SELYUKH: Hughes works in Washington state less than 100 miles from the nursing home, similar to hers, that's an epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak. The illness is considered more dangerous to the elderly and has killed several residents. One of Hughes' best friends actually works there. And Hughes herself has already used up her sick leave on a recent bout of flu, so she's feeling a little on edge.
HUGHES: I'm lucky that I actually have health insurance. Most of the other nurse's aides in my facility don't have health insurance.
SELYUKH: Professional caregivers like Hughes are in huge demand. Jobs as home, hospice, nurse's aides are growing fast and employ millions but often pay minimum wage or just above. Access to sick time varies. In some states, companies must pay their workers for time off - but far from all. Some agencies are flexible with paying for sick days, others not as much. Either way, missing a lot of work could be trouble.
SANDRA MERCADO: It's pretty expensive to live in the Bay Area, and it would be a huge blow to my income.
SELYUKH: Sandra Mercado is a caregiver in California, helping people with dementia or severe arthritis. She gets a few sick days and says her agency, Home Helpers, has sent her lots of information about the coronavirus. But she still worries about her clients who don't have family nearby - or at all - who need help walking or even getting out of bed.
MERCADO: So if there's a quarantine, how do they survive? If we have to stay indoors for 14 days, who's going to help them?
SELYUKH: All caregivers I spoke with walk this narrow line of saying it's not time to panic, knowing they're trained for the flu and other epidemics, but also preparing for a potential all-hands-on-deck situation.
VANESSA JACKSON: We don't have that luxury of telecommuting (laughter).
SELYUKH: Vanessa Jackson helps people with disabilities navigate everyday life - bills, laundry, doctor's appointments. Her agency, RCM of Washington, in D.C., told me the region has a severe shortage of workers like Jackson. And if they start to quarantine at home, that could be catastrophic. That's the case in a lot of states with a lot of these jobs. Hughes, from the nursing home, says Washington state also has a shortage of certified nurse's aides. Hughes works from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. alongside a nurse and a second aide.
HUGHES: So if one of us has a fever and is sent home, it's going to be pretty hard to find somebody to come and work an eight-hour shift in the middle of the night.
SELYUKH: Izella Hayes, who works at a nursing home in a suburb of Detroit, says most people in this line of work are not in it for the money.
IZELLA HAYES: They tell me I'm so silly. They don't want to take a shower, then I start singing. (Singing) When I say potato, you say po-tah-to (ph). Then they get to singing with me. I just enjoy making people happy.
SELYUKH: And that's another thing you can't really do remotely.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News.
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