Home Health Aide Adarra Benjamin On How Her Work Has Changed Amid COVID-19
In a typical day of work as a home health aide, 26-year-old Adarra Benjamin works well over 12 hour days to take care of the daily needs of people with illnesses, disabilities, and the elderly in their homes. She wakes up at 6 am to arrive at her client’s house in time to get her up and dressed, to fix her food and help clean. Later, she’ll visit another client, for whom she’ll make dinner, get ready for bed, and prepare everything she’ll need in the morning.
Unlike so many workers across the country, Benjamin’s work hasn’t stopped because of the coronavirus. Her clients still need her to help them make it through the day. So Benjamin still takes the bus, still goes out to shop for her clients — still works every day — largely without the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to keep her safe.
Last week, while on a break from her duties at work, Adarra took the time to tell Supermajority Co-founder Cecile Richards about her work and how she is speaking out on behalf of herself and other home healthcare aides — during these challenging times and beyond.
Cecile Richards: Tell us a little about yourself and your work.
Adarra Benjamin: I started [doing this work] in 2012, right out of high school. My great grandmother had early-onset dementia, and basically, I sacrificed going to college so that she didn’t have to be put into a nursing home.
Now, I work through the state of Illinois. I have four clients who I assist with daily living activities, such as feeding, bathing, getting in and out of bed, clothing, cleaning, grocery shopping. I’m basically their extra set of eyes and ears — and hands also. My clients have become family, honestly. This is my everyday routine, so not going to see them or talking to them makes a difference.
What has work been like for you these last few weeks during this pandemic?
It scares people like my clients who normally can’t go outside every day, and now they’re stuck at home. The only access they have to the outside world is me and the news, and the news is saying this virus is everywhere. Then I’m going in and out of their homes, to and from the store — it worries them that I could transmit the virus to them.
I’m normally clean, and I’m very aware, but now I have to spray everything down. I have to wipe my phone down. I have to make sure I come into the house with my gloves and a mask on, then leave with gloves and mask on. My clients don’t go to the store anymore, so they don’t know how it’s changed — that a trip that would normally take me minutes can now take me 3 hours depending on if that store has a limit on how many people they let in at a time.
It’s been very tough trying to be safe for myself and my family as well as my clients and their families.
How do you feel the government’s response to essential workers has affected your work?
I think the response could have been a lot better. I don’t think we’ve been prepared for this, seeing the lack of PPE (personal protective equipment). I have a lot of friends who work in home health care and they’ve contracted the virus. They’ve now had to stop servicing their clients, and there’s no way for them to have access to income. If we do get sick, there’s no hazard pay or paid sick leave. We don’t get that privilege.
I have to take more precautions than the normal person because if I get sick, there’s no income. It’s terrifying because at any moment I could contract it just coming to and from work.
I have also been spending my own money — money that I’ve been going to work to get — on PPE. While the home care agencies supply gloves, they don’t provide masks, hand sanitizer or disposable gowns to cover your garments. Those are out-of-cost purchases. And it’s a hunt to find them. If places have them, there isn’t a lot left. Luckily, because I’ve been in this field, I stocked up just because I would need it day-to-day and knew they wouldn’t be provided. I’ve been ok, but knowing that this is an ongoing pandemic, I still need protection from here on out. With people buying these things the way they’re buying them, there’s not a way to stock up the way I would usually stock up.
It has been frustrating because I work in a field that is supposed to protect others, but I’m not protected myself.
In June of last year, you were one of thousands of home care workers employed by the Illinois Department of Human Services who won $30 million in long-overdue back pay. Can you tell us about that fight?
At the time, I was working solely as a personal assistant, which is through the Department of Human Services. In 2017, the Illinois General Assembly approved a $0.48 hourly wage increase for home care workers. But then-Governor Rauner decided he didn’t want to pay it. Instead of giving the money to us, releasing it so it would be distributed from that point on, he decided to withhold it to us. So each home care worker in the state who qualified was owed an additional $0.48 per hour they worked since August 2017.
The money was finally released in 2019. That win took a lot of going down to Springfield, speaking with Senators and other House of Representatives, a lot of press conferences, a lot of testimonies with the alderman and the new mayor, a lot of petitions, a lot of phone calls to our state reps, a lot of door-to-door knocking. It was not an easy job. It was a lot of hard work — early mornings and late nights. It was a beautiful fight, honestly.
Now that I look back, I see that we showed our worth — we showed the effort we put into our work as home care aides. We showed how important the work is. We explained our stories to a lot of politicians, telling them what we do day-to-day to show them our value. Explaining that not only did we deserve that money because it had been given to us, but it’s something we deserve more of.
Why did you decide to jump into this fight?
Because if not me, who would do it? I have to take that stand. I’ve seen so many people in this field say they want more money, but you have to fight for it. And if someone doesn’t start now, while we can and we have a voice, nobody will want to be a home health aide if you can’t make a living wage off of it. This job is important because it serves the needs of other people’s lives. A doctor can’t go to work if his sickly mother at home has nobody to take care of. Somebody has to speak up to say, “Hey my job is just important as the doctor’s, so the doctor can go to work to help you.” I have to show how important and essential the job is. I can’t wait on the next person because they may feel they can wait on someone else.
What has this experience shown you about the importance of voting and knowing who is in office?
I actually did a testimony this summer on home care workers and the Fight For 15 and how important liveable wages are. To be able to testify not only in front of aldermen, but also our mayor, and have her give feedback on my testimony, saying that if it wasn’t for an essential worker, her mother wouldn’t be able to live day-to-day life. To know that her mother herself was a homecare aide, and to see how she was directly impacted, showed me that if you sit down and talk to people, you never know how important [the issues that matter to you] truly are to them as well. It opened me up to want to talk more and tell my story because I don’t know who I may be able to reach or what I may be able to learn from them.
I also worked on Lakecia Collins’ campaign for State Representative and it was amazing to see the strength it takes to want to have a voice — and not only because she comes from a nursing home background, so she knows firsthand what it’s like to do the work day in and day out — but also because she showed us that our voices can honestly be heard. She won — she’s on the ballot — and to know that she had the opportunity to really push [the campaign] to its limit and prevail was amazing. To know that anyone who takes that stride could also be in that position was eye-opening.
Working with the union has made me think [about running for office]. I never thought I would. I’m an only child, my mother is an only child, and it’s always been me and her — my father passed when I was three months. I personally have always been the shy, timid child. I had a big voice, and when I spoke people heard, but I never took value in speaking. Interning for the union and watching these amazing people standing up for what they believe in and telling me that the work I do, that I take so much pride in, is important and that if I feel the same way, I should speak it, and people will listen. Having people listen has been a big eye-opener and has made me want to look into my options in politics.
I would also advise any woman, in any field, to look more into the people who are in office. Try to find [and vote for] people who have your best interest at heart. Don’t think your voice is not important, because you never know whose mind you can change or whose heart you can change.