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'It’s A Frightening Experience': Nursing Home Workers Demand Protection From Coronavirus

Royal Oaks Nursing & Rehab CNA Monica Mondaine and other workers demand more protection from coronavirus at a rally outside the facility on April 22, 2020.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Nursing assistant Monica Mondaine and other workers at Royal Oak Nursing & Rehabilitation demand more protective equipment and hazard pay for working during the pandemic. The facility recently fired Mondaine.

Workers at two nursing homes in St. Louis are urging their facilities to take action to prevent them and their patients from being infected by the coronavirus. 

Employees of Royal Oak Nursing & Rehabilitation and the Estates of Spanish Lake Nursing and Rehabilitation Facility want more access to tests and masks, gloves and other protective equipment. They’re also asking for paid time off for workers forced to quarantine after coming into contact with residents who have the virus and additional compensation for working during the pandemic. 

At least 99 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Missouri have one or more residents or employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

Shunda Whitfield, a certified nursing assistant at the Estates of Spanish Lake, is quarantined at home because she was exposed to a resident who tested positive for COVID-19. But her supervisor still told her to report to work, she said at a press conference Wednesday.

The facility is not doing enough to ensure the safety of residents and workers, Whitfield said. 

“It’s a really frightening experience. You’re looking at the people being sick. You’re doing all you can do physically, and it’s mentally draining,” she said. “This hazard pay isn’t going to replace a life or stop the pandemic. But it will show some appreciation.” 

Whitfield has been tested for the virus and is waiting for the results.

At Royal Oak Nursing and Rehab, eight residents and three workers have tested positive for the disease. Nursing assistant Monica Mondaine said the Central West End facility fired her when she submitted a doctor’s note to excuse her from work. She has asthma and high blood pressure, conditions that put her at greater risk of becoming sick from the coronavirus.

“When I tried to present my medical condition with my supervisor, she didn’t want to hear it,” Mondaine said. “I literally sat in my car and cried.” 

With no income coming in, Mondaine can barely buy groceries and pay rent. 

“It’s just unfair they don’t want to pay us administrative pay, sick pay,” she said. “We’re leaving our loved ones to put our lives on the line.”

A worker at Royal Oak Nursing & Rehabilitation demanding paid sick leave and hazard pay during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 22, 2020.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Eight residents and three employees at Royal Oak Nursing & Rehabilitation have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Royal Oak Nursing and Rehab offers hazard pay, but only began doing so after the coronavirus began spreading to nursing homes in the St. Louis region, said Lenny Jones, vice president of SEIU Healthcare. The union represents about 90,000 health care workers in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Indiana. 

Medicare has given Royal Oak Nursing and Rehab and the Estates of Spanish Lake low ratings, for failing routine health inspections. The coronavirus outbreak has exposed weaknesses in the nursing home industry, such as underpaid workers, Jones said. 

“We’re asking for some respect. If we’re going to put our lives on the line, employers should pay more,” he said. 

Royal Oak Nursing and Rehab is managed by Reach LTC, which also manages Frontier Health and Rehabilitation in St. Charles. At least 63 residents and 12 employees at Frontier Health have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 12 residents have died. 

Royal Oak provides free testing to employees who show symptoms of the coronavirus and has never been in short supply of protective equipment, the nursing home said in a statement. 
“Today’s action by our employees is in violation of their union’s contract with us and is related to union members walking off the job earlier this month after being told that one of our patients tested positive for COVID 19 while in the hospital,” the facility’s officials said.

Royal Oak officials also wrote that the facility provides workers “fair and reasonable means to take unpaid time off from work when necessary for emergency medical, health, maternity, family emergency and/or illness, involuntary leave, and personal emergency reasons, without jeopardizing their position with the company.”

The pandemic has put tremendous pressure on long-term care facilities that are losing staff to exposure of the coronavirus. A Kaiser Health News analysis found in March that well-staffed nursing homes are more capable of preventing viral infections at their facilities.

Quarantining at home has made it difficult to care for her family and for her neighbors, nursing assistant Whitfield said.

“I feel sadly broken in my spirit that I can’t be assisting residents as well as my family members,” Whitfield said. “I’m just saying, let’s all work together to make it a better situation. Nobody can stop what nature has done.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Monica Mondaine's health conditions. She has asthma and high blood pressure.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.