California’s workplace safety watchdog still doesn’t know how many nursing home workers have contracted COVID-19 on the job and died.
California’s health department regularly updates a list of COVID-19 infections and deaths at nursing homes…BUT only about half of those listed facilities have bothered to report the death to Cal/OSHA, the agency in charge of enforcing worker safety, according to the state records.
The failure to report the COVID-19 deaths — by as many as 64 nursing homes — exposes a significant FLAW in the state’s response to the pandemic. The state is unable to fully and properly track the spread of the disease in a workplace setting where, more than anywhere else in California, the virus is ruthlessly stalking employees and patients.
That makes nursing homes inherently more dangerous, worker advocates say, because it obscures where poor workplace conditions are seeding community outbreaks.
“The consequence is incredibly serious,” said Arnulfo De La Cruz, executive vice president at Local 2015 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 400,000 employees of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. “Nursing home administrators really have to be held accountable for failing to protect workers.”
More than 8,800 residents and some 220 nursing home employees have died of COVID-19 related complications, according to the California Department of Public Health’s online dashboard.
The issue is particularly important among certified nursing assistants and vocational nurses, the twin pillars of most nursing homes but also among the lowest-paid workers in the healthcare industry. The long-term care industry employs some 147,000 workers to help care for an estimated 88,000 California seniors in nursing homes.
They often earn minimum wage and are disproportionately women of color. Fearing retaliation, they’re among those least likely to speak up against management when, for instance, the nursing home denies that a coronavirus infection occurred on the job and thus fails to report it to Cal/OSHA.
“They want to under-report COVID deaths because it looks bad for them,” said Charlene Harrington, professor emerita of nursing at UC San Francisco.
Some in the nursing home industry say the data doesn’t tell the whole story — and they’re alarmed at any implication that facilities are intentionally covering up worker deaths.