‘Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been called heroes but not treated like them. Due to unsafe working conditions at my job, I have tested positive for COVID-19 not once, but twice.’

Sen. Gianaris’ Office/Teamsters JC 16

Advocates rallying for the NY HERO Act in August.

New Yorkers are rightly outraged about the mounting number of deaths at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities statewide. It’s time for our state government to do the right thing and take action to protect all workers, residents, and our communities.

I’m an assisted-living facility worker and COVID-19 survivor. I contracted the virus while working without protective equipment and entering rooms without knowing whether patients were infected with COVID.

When I got sick, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to provide for my family. And I was concerned about telling my three-year-old daughter she had to stay away from me.

But I was also angry because I knew my COVID-19 infection could have been prevented. The truth is that New York has failed to do enough to protect essential workers in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, and others on the frontlines of the battle against COVID.

We can’t wait months for COVID vaccines. And the vaccines themselves are not a substitute for the health and safety protections we need to do our jobs.

That’s why I’m joining assisted-living facility workers, nursing home workers and other essential workers across New York to call on the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass the NY Hero Act immediately.

This vital legislation would create protections against infectious disease that still do not exist in many essential workplaces and businesses across the state.

I work at an assisted living facility in the Bronx. I am among the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in the essential workforce. We’re healthcare workers, grocery store workers, transit workers, farmworkers, nurses and many others. We risk our lives, day in and day out, to keep New York’s economy running.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been called heroes but not treated like them. Due to unsafe working conditions at my job, I have tested positive for COVID-19 not once, but twice. My story is more the norm than the exception among essential workers, especially those of us employed in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.

After my first positive test I missed a month of work, but only received two weeks of paid sick leave. When I returned to work, I was afraid. But I needed the job in order to provide for my daughter. It wasn’t long before I started feeling sick once more, and again, I tested positive for COVID-19.

At the facility where I work, approximately 40 residents have died from COVID-19. More than 30 other caregivers have tested positive and one housekeeper has died.

Our facility doesn’t do deep cleaning. When there aren’t enough protective masks to go around, we have to bring our own. We often do not have soap in the dispensers to wash our hands. It also took a long time to get gowns. Instead, we wore garbage bags. Then, we ran out of those, too. We were caring for COVID-positive residents and then wearing the same gowns to feed COVID-negative residents. After my coworkers and I spoke up, the state Health Department ordered the facility to have us change gowns after working with a COVID-positive resident.

Across New York, thousands of essential workers have died from COVID-19, because they were not adequately protected at their jobs. And while COVID cases and deaths may be declining overall, essential workers continue to be among those most at risk of getting sick and dying from the virus.

Many COVID infections and deaths among essential workers can still be prevented if New York acts soon to create clear, enforceable health and safety standards for our workplaces. The NY HERO Act would create common-sense, life-saving standards for things like personal protective equipment, sanitization, and proper ventilation to create lethal viruses and infectious diseases from spreading in our workplaces.

The legislation would also ensure that workers like me are protected from retaliation when we speak out against unsafe working conditions or refuse to work when our lives are put in danger.

All I want is to feel safe at work again, and to know that I am not spreading COVID to the residents in my care, to my co-workers, and to my own child.

I won’t feel that sense of safety until the state legislature and Governor Cuomo pass the NY HERO Act. It’s time for them to protect essential workers, our families, and our communities. 

Evelyn Brown is an assisted-living facility worker, Bronx resident, and member of UFCW Local 2013.