Marcial Torres Credit: Contributed photo

Marcial Torres’ ability to work as a personal care assistant has been cut by 70% for nearly the past two weeks because his primary client has been in the hospital with COVID-19.

Torres couldn’t care for two other clients, which make up the other 30% of his pay, because he had to isolate for a few days while waiting for his own COVID-19 test to come back negative.

As a PCA, or home care worker, paid with funding administered through the state Department of Social Services, Torres gets no paid time off, no sick time pay and no health insurance.

He also doesn’t get paid if his clients are in the hospital, putting him in a precarious financial position during the most recent wave of illness caused by the more contagious omicron variant.

“We’ve always had the issue of not being able to get paid, but now it’s gotten worse,” said Torres, a 35-year-old New Haven resident who helps support his family. “The pandemic is now making it difficult to maintain work and not put anybody at risk. This is really pushing the limits.”

He’s not alone, said Diedre Murch, vice president and director of home care for the New England Heath Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199.

The pandemic is now devastating PCAs at both ends of the equation, Murch said. “This new surge, in the absence of any paid sick time, has put gasoline on the fire,” Murch said. “We are hearing about people going through severe hardships, evictions, hunger, the inability to pay bills.”

The union has been in negotiations with the state over a new contract for months. The union wants PCAs to receive $20 an hour, paid sick time, health care and a path to retirement much like the contracts that were approved for group home and nursing home workers.

But so far, there has been little forward movement, even though federal funding for COVID-19 paid sick time for PCAs ran out three months ago, Murch said.

In the meantime, union officials have been flooded with phone calls about dire circumstances faced by PCAs who often don’t qualify for state aid because they make over the threshold for benefits, but are still living paycheck to paycheck, and now, are a few paychecks behind, Murch said.

“It’s really gutting to see and hear so many people going through extreme hardship,” Murch said. “The volume of calls and the level of hardship is really high right now.”

The union has sent out surveys to members to get a handle on what people are facing during this wave of the pandemic, Murch said. Last year’s survey showed 20% of PCAs either feared or experienced homelessness during the pandemic, she said.

Torres had been trying to pay off medical bills from an injury in October and now has missed two weeks of work after his primary client went to the hospital with COVID-19.

The client is still hospitalized and Torres has only been working 20 hours a week since. “Almost 40% of my income for January is gone,” he said.

Crystal Amato lost two weeks of pay when her son tested positive for COVID-19 and now her work as a PCA has been cut in half because she lost a client. “It’s definitely cut my income,” Amato said. “I don’t qualify for food stamps. Thankfully I have a good stock-up pile, so we have been living on whatever we had.”

After she tested positive for COVID-19 just after Christmas, Essie Anderson borrowed money so she could feed her grandniece and nephew, who are in her care. For the past four years, she’s worked as a PCA for her mother, who needs 24-hour care, she said.

But when she started feeling unwell the day after the holiday, she took a test – and came up positive, she said. That resulted in her missing work until Jan. 6, when she tested negative. By that point, her mother tested positive, leaving Anderson in a position where she feared she’d be spreading the virus back and forth between family members.

“I went back on a limited schedule to keep myself from being reinfected,” Anderson said. So instead of being paid for 25 hours a week, she said she’s down to two hours a day.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Anderson said. “If you aren’t at work, that’s a day’s pay lost. If you miss your time, there’s no way to make it up. If you get sick, there’s no pay. For the work we do, that’s extremely disappointing.”