No More 24
Reported by: Meghan Offtermatt
Adapted for print by: Caroline Ealy
Home healthcare aides in New York City work for 24 hours straight, but are only compensated for 13 hours of work. Although these attendants are provided with a place to sleep during these around-the-clock shifts, they often end up working through the night to provide the care their patients require. After enduring these conditions for years, the workers are fighting to outlaw these shifts.
Gu Zhi-Sang, a 64-year-old live-in home healthcare worker, has been working consecutive 24-hour shifts for the past year. Sometimes she works four shifts back-to-back, resulting in 96 hours of work without sleep or a substantial break. The 1199-SEIU healthcare workers union and the insurance companies only provide 13 hours of pay, because employees are expected to sleep for eight hours and take breaks to eat during the remaining three. However, according to Ms. Gu, it’s impossible to get more than one consecutive hour of sleep during these workdays.
With tears in her eyes, Ms. Gu explained that this work has become very difficult. She moved to the United States from Shanghai, China 16 years ago and has been working in home healthcare for that entire time, watching these day-long shifts become more common. When she does have the chance to sleep, she needs to take sleeping pills, which sometimes simply don’t work. She’s struggling with anxiety and depression. She suffers from back pain as a result of the manual labor she’s required to do to assist her patient.
Ms. Gu was one of many home healthcare workers standing outside on a rainy day in October to protest 24-hour workdays. Her fellow protestors were holding pieces of cardboard painted red and cut into the shape of stop signs that said, “Stop The 24-hour Workday.”
This group of Asian women made their way to New York City Councilmember Sandra Ung’s office in Flushing because they want the District Twenty Representative to support a City Council bill currently in Committee that would ban these 24-hour shifts. For many of these home healthcare aides, the passing of that Bill – Intro 175 – would end years of workplace suffering.
Ms. Gu was surrounded by fellow healthcare workers, organizers from the Flushing Workers Center and activists from the Ain’t I A Woman Campaign. That campaign originally worked to eliminate sweatshop conditions in New York City. They’re now supporting the healthcare worker’s efforts to repeal 24-hour workdays. Jihye Song, a member of the organization, explained that these two issues are related because the same groups of people are impacted for the same reasons. “It’s considered service work, right? So, who’s going to do that?,” Song asked. “It’s going to be the most economically vulnerable populations, which is usually immigrants of color and undocumented immigrants of color.”
That isn’t just speculation; a representative from Queens-based home healthcare agency Sunnyside Community Services testified in a New York City Council hearing that 97% of their workforce is comprised of women of color, most of whom are immigrants.
John Choe, a representative from the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, echoed the sentiments of the Ain’t I A Woman Campaign. “These women are desperate, they are asking for your help,” he pressed. The healthcare workers are using all the tools at their disposal; they are looking to the New York City Council for help, to their union and to the insurance companies who fund their services.
Earlier this year, the 1199-SEIU healthcare workers union hired an arbitrator to settle a dispute between the labor force and their members. Home healthcare aides wanted to be compensated for all 24 hours of their workday. The arbitrator ruled in favor of the healthcare attendants in March.
The arbitration award seemed like a win, but it wasn’t that simple. “A lot of workers – when the arbitration agreement came out – they were very confused by the claims form they were given,” said Zeke Luger, an organizer with the Flushing Workers Center. “They were looking at it and it said you’re agreeing to this settlement, you will get something in return for waiving your rights to sue your employer, to sue any owners associated with the employer and to sue even the insurance company.”
While the decision demanded the union pay back workers for their lost wages, forced arbitration also prevents union members from advocating for themselves in other ways. “Their options for taking it to court as is are pretty limited just because the union negotiated for mandatory arbitration,” Luger explained. Even after the decision came down, it still wasn’t clear how much money workers would get back. Now, months later, many workers still haven’t gotten a dime.
“We have not met anyone who has gotten a dollar amount,” Luger said. “One person has been doing this for two decades and is owed like $2M.” It doesn’t look like anyone will see those large dollar amounts, either. The workers and organizers have had to do the math themselves to estimate how much they might get back. “The workers started going to the union to ask, you know how much money am I going to get and the union kept giving them reasons why they couldn’t give an exact number,” Luger recalled. After doing their own calculations, Luger concluded that the workers were going to be paid for three minutes of every 11 hours of work owed to them.
The lack of compensation clarity isn’t the only issue at hand. For many of these healthcare workers, English is not their native language, making the paperwork, claims forms and materials difficult to understand. “Information was only given to them in English, while most of this workforce almost entirely are immigrant women of color speaking Spanish, Creole, Chinese,” Christopher Marte, the city council member for district one explained. “So a lot of the information that was given to them – they didn’t know what it pertained to.”
This issue is close to the councilmember. His mother was a home healthcare worker and he’s now the prime sponsor for Intro 175 – the bill that would end these 24-hour shifts.
“We can’t have people working for 24-hour shifts, period. I think our bill Intro-175 is crucial. We need to make sure we have the law in place to abolish 24-hour shifts in NYC. That’s the only way we’re going to have the city and the state make changes to their practices and to their systems,” Marte explained. The proposed bill would limit shifts to twelve hours, prevent two back-to-back twelve hour shifts and limit the week to a fifty-hour workweek. However,not everybody supports the bill. Multiple home healthcare agencies testified in a council hearing in September that they worry this bill could bankrupt them.
“City Council passes bills every month that change funding streams or that increases or decreases funding. We don’t think we’re moving heaven and earth to do this,” Marte said. “The financial argument, I think, is a fairly weak one.” That argument is weakened by the fact that New York City is the only place in New York struggling to rectify this problem. Home healthcare aides working elsewhere in the state are operating within the same healthcare framework – relying on the 1199-SEIU and the same insurance guidelines., “They don’t really happen in Rochester, in Syracuse, even in Westchester or Long Island and these are the same patients that are under the same Medicaid plan,” Marte explained.
His hope is that this bill can lead to a long-term solution. He’s currently talking to the union and the healthcare agencies and making amendments to the legislation to get everybody on board. “I think a lot of people who opposed the bill early on are definitely changing their tune and understanding of what we’re trying to achieve,” Marte outlined.
It isn’t just the healthcare workers who would benefit from this legislation.“Imagine being a patient and your worker not being able to sleep for days on end,” Marte said. “You wouldn’t feel confident about the care you’re getting. We believe the care of two people is better than the care of one person.” Now it’s Council Member Marte’s job to convince everyone who was on the fence that two shifts are, in fact, better than one. The bill is still being amended in Committee, but it’ll go to a vote soon. And when it does, 24 may finally be, no more. --