ST. LOUIS — Nichole Scott remembers her sister’s laugh.
Her sister, Mary Allen, 66, of St. Louis died April 5 of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Anyone who heard Allen’s “little giggle” would smile, said Scott, 47, of St. Louis.
“Everybody just loved to talk to her and listen to her little laugh,” Scott said. “She had a laugh that everybody liked to mimic.”
Allen’s husband was also hospitalized with COVID-19 and only recently recovered, Scott said. The disease had also infected members of Scott’s church, Barak Christian Church, in Hazelwood, and family friends, including Carl Smith Sr., a former St. Louis police officer and pastor who died April 9.
Now Scott has the disease. She tested positive for COVID-19 on May 1 at the nursing home where she works, Bernard Care Center, after the home ramped up testing of employees who weren’t showing symptoms. The home had confirmed its first COVID-19 case weeks earlier, despite taking measures including banning visitors and requiring masks, gloves, gowns and shoe coverings, Scott said.
Scott was ordered to quarantine for 14 days. She immediately notified her adult daughter and three grandchildren, who live in a two-story home with her. For weeks, Scott had worn a mask leaving and entering the home, heading straight to the second floor of the home and telling the children to keep away.
“It’s hard,” she said. “I’m used to playing with them, giving them snacks, you read to them, trying to get the little one to spell his name,” Scott said. “He’s in the middle of learning to count and spell.”
Nobody else in the household has developed symptoms, Scott said. But she worries.
“Am I going to be wake up one morning in respiratory distress and not be able to breathe?”
Though she’s isolating, Scott still has to leave home to get dialysis treatment for kidney failure at the Washington University Dialysis Center and is on a waiting list for a kidney transplant.
Meanwhile, she doesn’t have an income, she said. Bernard is requiring her to quarantine using vacation days and other paid time off she earned before the spread of COVID-19.
Scott is one of several employees at St. Louis-area nursing homes who have been denied paid leave despite testing positive for COVID-19, according to SEIU Healthcare Missouri. The union, which represents about 4,000 health care workers across the state, has held several protests in St. Louis in recent weeks to demand paid sick leave, hazard pay and other protections for workers treating COVID-19 patients.
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, but allows health care providers to exempt themselves. Nursing home employees who quit aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, according to SEIU.
Bernard Care Center is owned by Reliant Care Management LLC, which owns 22 senior-living facilities in Missouri. CEO Rick DeStefane said the company requires employees who test positive for COVID-19 to use accrued paid time off but also provides them with paid time off donated by other employees, he said.
Reliant Care has increased workers’ pay above what is required by the current union contract, DeStefane said. He did not have more details but said Reliant is “paying employees substantially above the contract scale to recognize their effort in this crisis.”
Scott, who had worked at Bernard for 17 years, took care of about 20 residents with behavioral health complications for a little more than $14 an hour, she said. While other employees stopped showing up to work, she continued.
“I had a job to do,” she said. “I signed up to take care of people. People that need my help.”
She doesn’t have enough PTO to cover the two weeks she has to self-isolate, she said.
“I don’t feel like I should have to use it because I’m forced to be off because of an illness,” she said. “It would be different if I was sick and I had to go off for an operation that’s my elective procedure. But because I was coming to work, I endangered myself and contracted this virus from the workplace.”
“So yeah, I feel like it’s part of their responsibility to help cover us.”
Two employees of another nursing home owned by Reliant, Heritage Care Center in Berkeley, said they also tested positive for COVID-19 in early May after the home tested asymptomatic workers. They are under quarantine without sick pay.
“I knew it was a possibility to get it, because a lot of people were getting it at the nursing home,” said Antonio Williams, of Bridgeton, a hall monitor at Heritage for two years. “But I had bills to pay.”
It has been weeks since William has seen his daughter, Aneria, 6, he said. He took her to live with his mother, a retired teacher, in Jennings when the coronavirus started spreading, he said.
“I just couldn’t afford her getting sick,” he said. “It’s hard, but she understands what’s going on and she texts me everyday.”
Williams, who made $10 an hour helping employees and residents deliver food trays and monitor hallways, had racked up dozens of overtime hours as other employees stopped showing up to work because of the virus, he said. But he hadn’t accrued enough paid time off to cover a 14-day quarantine, he said.
“I might have to borrow some money from my mom or dad and just have to work extra hard next month to pay them back, that’s the only thing that I can do,” he said. “I think we’re getting underpaid and underappreciated for the work that we do. Being in the nursing homes, we’re putting our lives on the line.”
Corey Holloway, a floor tech at Heritage for more than two years, said he was tested positive May 1 after the home conducted tests on all employees. He was told to quarantine and use paid time off. After two years cleaning the building for $10.59 an hour, he accrued enough hours to last a few days, he said.
“I didn’t argue, because I still need to get paid,” said Holloway, 28, of East St. Louis. “But I don’t have enough for the full two weeks.
“We should be compensated. I feel like, why wouldn’t they?”
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