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Denied sick leave, she kept working at the nursing home. Now she’s another St. Louis COVID-19 casualty.
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Denied sick leave, she kept working at the nursing home. Now she’s another St. Louis COVID-19 casualty.

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ST. LOUIS — Employees of a nursing home here joined the state health care workers’ union Monday in demanding paid sick leave and other protections after learning that a co-worker died of COVID-19.

Cynthia Whitfield, 58, of Jennings died April 21 of the disease, a week after she was hospitalized at SSM Health St. Mary’s, said her daughter Jasmine Whitfield, 25.

A certified medical technician at Grand Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation, Cynthia Whitfield was awaiting COVID-19 test results when she told her employers April 10 that she was short of breath and severely fatigued, her daughter said. A handful of other employees had tested positive for the disease after an outbreak there sickened dozens of residents.

Whitfield had already used her vacation days but asked for days off because of the sickness, her daughter said. But because Grand Manor wouldn’t pay her for that time, she continued to report to work up until a day before she was hospitalized.

Not allowing her paid sick leave “exposed her and exposed all the residents also,” Jasmine Whitfield said.

Jasmine and Cynthia Whitfield

Jasmine Whitfield (left) and her mother Cynthia Whitfield, 58, of Jennings (right). Cynthia Whitfield, a nurse at Grand Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation in St. Louis, died April 21 of COVID-19 after becoming infected at the home, Jasmine Whitfield said. Photo courtesy of Jasmine Whitfield. 

“If you’re showing symptoms and you’re waiting for a test result, she should have been able to stay home,” she said.

Michael Howard, a nurse at Grand Manor, worked closely with Whitfield for many years, he said. On Monday, Howard joined representatives of SEIU Healthcare Missouri in calling for the home to provide paid employees paid sick leave and hazard pay, echoing demands the union laid out in April at a protest outside another St. Louis nursing home.

Grand Manor, 3645 Cook Avenue in north St. Louis, is one of several nursing homes across the St. Louis area that have denied workers paid sick leave, hazard pay and other protections, said Lenny Jones, a director and vice president of the union, which represents about 4,000 health care workers. SEIU Healthcare is part of the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s second-largest union behind the National Education Association.

While Grand Manor has provided protective equipment to workers and has informed them when residents have COVID-19, Howard is worried what would happen if he were to test positive and forced to quarantine, he said.

“I’m dedicated to the job,” Howard said. “I’m dedicated to helping people. I’ve been doing it for so long and a lot of people depend on me and I’m trying to do it for them. … But getting sick — and if you do get sick you don’t get paid — that’s scary man, that’s really scary.”

While Grand Manor announced April 20 it would pay an extra $10 an hour to nurses, it has not extended the offer to other employees, said Arlester Dorris, a housekeeper.

“We’re all exposed to the same thing,” said Dorris, a father of three boys. “I might not have to go in there and touch residents but I do have to go in there and sanitize and clean all the things that they have.”

Grand Manor did not respond to a request for comment. The home’s owner, Mahklouf “Mark” Suissa, of Chicago, did not respond to a request for comment.

Grand Manor employees say dozens of residents at the home have tested positive for COVID-19, Jones said. Another Suissa-owned facility, Northview Village, 2415 North Kingshighway, is also battling COVID-19 but has refused the union’s call for paid sick leave and hazard pay, Jones said.

Though the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in response to the pandemic, provides some employees up to 10 paid sick days and up to 10 weeks of paid medical leave, the act allows health care providers to exempt themselves, Jones said. But providing paid sick leave to employees who are forced to quarantine is key to protect both nursing home residents and other workers, he said.

Whitfield worked at Grand Manor for more than a decade and enjoyed the work, her daughter said. Outside of work, she loved to host family barbecues and the annual family reunion, and loved to take pictures with her relatives and friends, she said.

“You think you have enough memories with a person, you think you have enough pictures, and then you don’t,” Jasmine Whitfield said.

She believes her mother, after becoming infected at Grand Manor, also infected her grandmother, who fell ill around the same time and tested positive at St. Louis University Hospital on April 18 On Monday, she remained at the hospital on a ventilator, Jasmine Whitfield said.

“She doesn’t even know her daughter passed,” she said. “That’s going to be hard news to break to her.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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