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Home care attendants demand shorter work hours

BOROUGHWIDE — Home care attendants, who do the backbreaking work of taking care of the elderly and frail and who often work long hours for low pay, say they’ve had enough.

A group of home care workers is fighting to change state law to put a cap on the number of hours they would be required to work in a week. Under the current system, attendants often work shifts that last for 24 hours straight.

Making matters worse, according to advocates for home care attendants, workers are sometimes not paid for the full number of hours they work. After a 24-hour shift, workers often are only paid for 13 hours of labor, because state labor laws factor in sleeping and meal time, though often the attendants do not get the time budgeted for their breaks.

“We must end the 24-hour shift. Even if they paid me for every hour, I wouldn’t work 24-hour shifts anymore. It cost me my health and family,” said home care attendant Sileni Martinez, who worked as a home care attendant for 27 years.

Fed-up home care attendants have now joined forces with elected officials and worker’s rights advocates to push for changes to state laws.

A group called the Ain’t I a Woman?! Campaign is helping to lead the charge.

“We say, no more! For the sake of our health, families and the people we care for, home care workers in New York have been calling on the government to abolish the 24-hour shift, and split them into two shifts of 12 hours each, allowing home care workers time to rest and people who are ill or disabled to receive proper care,” said Mary Lister, a home care worker, speaking on behalf of the Ain’t I a Woman?! Campaign.

Photo courtesy of state Sen. Roxanne Persaud’s office
“These long shifts leave aides overly fatigued,” said State Sen. Roxanne Persaud, who is sponsoring legislation to cap the hours attendants are allowed to work. 

On Sept. 4, home care workers participated in a press conference held by Brooklyn State Sen. Roxanne Persaud and Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein in lower Manhattan where the two elected officials announced legislation that would ban 24-hour workdays for home care workers and cap work weeks at 50 hours.

The legislation would also mandate maximum 12-hour split shifts for attendants caring for patients who need round-the-clock care.

The press conference took place in front of 23-29 Washington Place, the building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place in 1911. The devastating blaze killed 145 factory workers, exposed the dangerous sweatshop conditions under which the employees worked and led to changes in regulations to increase safety.

“Seniors, people with disabilities or chronic health conditions, and countless others rely on home health aides for care continually. Too many of these caretakers are working 24-hour shifts with little or no time for a break. These long shifts leave aides overly fatigued and may result in patients receiving a lower quality of care,” said Persaud, a Democrat representing Canarsie, Mill Basin and East New York.

“We must prevent home health aides from being forced to work around-the-clock shifts, to safeguard the health, safety and general well-being of both patients and caregivers,” Persaud added.

One former attendant, Mei Kum Chu, said years of working 24-hour shifts took a devastating toll on her health. “I am not able to continue working now and I need someone to take care of me. I come forward to support this proposal because I don’t want more women to get hurt and become like me,” she said.

There are approximately 239,500 home care workers in New York State, according to Persaud.

“Home health aides, most of whom are women of color, provide heartfelt care for our elderly and disabled, yet too many of them are overworked and underpaid. This legislation will begin to ensure that those who care for our loved ones are cared for as well,” said Brooklyn State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who supports the legislation.

The Persaud-Epstein bill also has the support of the National Organization for Women New York.

“The rights of workers charged with caring for our most vulnerable seniors must be protected,” NOW New York President Sonia Ossorio said.

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