Good pay is the best way to honor nursing assistants

June 20th, 2017

This story was originally published by The Huffington Post.

As part of our commemoration of Nursing Assistants Week, we profiled two of our nursing assistants and shared their stories with other members of our union.

Both caregivers talked about making a difference in their patients’ lives. But neither wanted to stay in their jobs much longer.

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Whether they work at hospitals, nursing homes, or clinics, nursing assistants are overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated. These caregivers literally do the heavy lifting in healthcare settings — carrying frail patients, bathing them, and helping them get from one place to another.

Yet, they make on average $11.51 per hour and just $19,000 per year, according to a report last year by Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI). Less than half of nursing assistants make what constitutes a living wage for their region, the report found. One-third rely on public assistance programs such as Medicaid and food stamps to support themselves and their families.

Poverty wages become a trap for many caregivers. Instead of taking classes to boost job prospects, many nursing assistants have to take second jobs or work regular overtime shifts.

Sadly, nursing home operators have built excessive overtime shifts into their business model. When our members at a Marin County nursing home took a stand this year by refusing to work voluntary overtime during the week when state inspectors were expected conduct surveys, their employer had to hire more than 20 temporary workers to meet minimal staffing requirements.

Constant overtime isn’t the only scheduling challenge nursing assistants face. Many homes cancel shifts — without notice — with even a slight drop in patient volume. We recently organized nursing assistants at Kindred Hospital San Diego, who reported frequently driving long distances to their jobs only to be ordered home because their shifts had been cancelled.

So it’s no surprise that about half of nursing assistants leave their jobs every year, according to the PHI report. Such high turnover is costly for employers and traumatizing for patients who rely on forming an intimate bond with caregivers who understand their needs.

There are many reasons that nursing assistants are chronically underpaid. Many insurers do not adequately reimburse the cost of providing care, and too often employers refuse to pay fair wages for jobs that are largely held by minority women. Still, one of the biggest reasons nursing assistants are paid so poorly is that few of them are union members. In California, the National Union of Healthcare Workers has helped thousands of these workers start winning wages and benefits that lift them out of poverty.

At St. Joseph Hospital Eureka, we won a contract last year that boosted nursing assistants’ starting hourly salary from $11.19 to $14.79 — a 32 percent jump. Likewise, we won a contract at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital in Orange County this year that provided up to 15 percent raises for veteran nursing assistants.

Nursing assistants deserve this day to be recognized for the vital work they do for patients. But a day is no substitute for fair pay, stable work schedules, and good benefits.