In the face of the pandemic and a historical staffing shortage, direct care workers have continued to answer the call and care for older adults and people with disabilities.
COVID-19 hasn’t stopped Samaritas’ direct care workers from going above and beyond the line of duty. Staffing shortages for direct care have been an issue since even before the pandemic.
Kevin Van Den Bosch, chief operations officer for Samaritas, said one of the biggest challenges for the organization always has been finding quality people who want to serve based on the mission and values of the organization.
“The job, although very rewarding emotionally, does not pay very well,” Van Den Bosch said. “The hours can be challenging, with weekends and overnight shifts. We’re working with a population that many see as not having a voice in terms of their needs, so it can become a bit thankless.”
Additionally, rates set by the state only allow organizations like Samaritas to pay their workers at a certain amount. At Samaritas, an entry-level disabled care worker starts at $11.05 an hour, and the pay only goes up to $15.45 an hour for a seasoned care worker.
The low pay, coupled with long hours and emotional labor leads most people to see direct care as an entry-level job, but Van Den Bosch said it doesn’t have to be, and many direct care workers are in professional, upwardly mobile positions within the organization.
For COVID-19 procedures, Samaritas kept daily watch on OSHA and CDC guidelines and established its own procedures for staff regarding PPE, sanitization and social distancing. Managing the different populations Samaritas cares for came with its own unique difficulties depending on their needs.
For Samaritas’ disabled population, direct care workers had to deal with the heightened fear of COVID-19 for a high-risk population, as well as the heightened sense of alienation those at-risk people feel from not being able to see their family.
“Those people may feel emotionally separated from their family without technology and that heightened fear of COVID,” Van Den Bosch said. “We do work with medically fragile people in terms of that fear. But if we have three teenage boys living together, they have very little fear of contracting COVID and may be shunning any kind of governor’s orders. In that case, it’s working with those boys and telling them about the impact COVID can have on others and their loved ones.”
The pandemic also was emotionally taxing for direct care workers, Van Den Bosch said. Besides taking care of their physical safety with PPE and regular COVID-19 check-ins, Samaritas provided dedicated emotional support members for their staff to call at any time, even when they were on their shifts.
“We have many staff who are lonely, or scared or depressed,” he said. “We made sure they had people available beyond their supervisors to talk to. It just simply is someone on our staff who is willing to listen … after we did that for a while, so many people said they appreciated being able to call on a shift. Trust is earned in the smallest of moments, and it’s doing those things for our staff that will keep them safe and healthy just like a facemask does.
“We’ve had a huge racial divide and a presidential election, which divided our country further,” Van Den Bosch said. “In spite of some of the ugliness of 2020, there’s a beauty that came out of it, because people have had to come together and use their skills and bring more compassion and grace than what they thought they had to give.”
As part of its persons with disabilities program, Samaritas has staff who serve clients directly in their home, and Van Den Bosch said he was particularly inspired by their dedication to both clients and fellow workers.
In the early days of the pandemic, when most people thought the lockdown would only last a couple of weeks, several direct care workers got together and covered the shift of a fellow worker who was pregnant at the time.
“We had staff who told this woman, ‘we want you to be safe so we’ll go in and take care of your clients,’” Van Den Bosch said.
During the flooding crisis in the middle part of the state earlier this year, Samaritas had a blind patient at its Midland facility who could not be relocated without exposing that individual to severe trauma. Instead, one care worker volunteered to stay with the client and support them emotionally through the crisis.
“That person is making $12 an hour, and he just sacrificed that time,” Van Den Bosch said. “I will take no credit for this. I just think there are saints out there, and we are fortunate to have some of them working for us. I think these people stick around because they feel like they’re part of the team. They feel like they have a say and they’re making a difference in people’s lives.”
As the pandemic has left many Americans isolated at home, and even without the prospect of employment, Van Den Bosch encouraged people to get out and be part of a team.
“In joining a team like Samaritas and getting involved, you can do something so rewarding,” he said. “These are unprecedented times right now, but there are people who can help you use the skills you already have.”