Why human services employees in communities are essential to combating COVID-19

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Last week, a group of senators announced a new legislative effort called the COVID-19 “Heroes Fund,” intended to provide additional funding to “reward, retain and recruit essential workers” during the pandemic.

The proposal includes a premium pay increase for doctors, nurses and other “essential workers” up to $25,000 per person, retroactive to the start of the pandemic and running through the end of the year. It also calls for an essential worker recruitment incentive of $15,000 to attract and keep the medical workforce needed to fight the pandemic. 

Human service sector professionals should be among those included in the bill’s designation of essential workers. They are the workers who run our nation’s homeless and domestic violence shelters, look out for children in the child welfare system, provide critical mental health services and in-home services for elders and people with disabilities.

Their work does not stop in the face of this pandemic. In fact, they are more essential than ever before as a buffer against the worst impacts of the outbreak and should receive access to both hazard pay and personal protective equipment (PPE).

For example, Home of the Innocents, a private nonprofit in Louisville, Kentucky operates the Kosair Charities Pediatric Convalescent Center, long-term care, a skilled nursing facility for 76 medically complex children, 15 of whom are dependent on ventilators for survival. During the COVID-19 pandemic, employees must continue this care around the clock, facing potential risks from a number of areas. 

With so many of the children in care facing ongoing health risks, it is not uncommon for a number of them to be hospitalized for more intensive treatment. While the Home staff has been able to keep COVID cases among residents to zero, each exposure of a child to the hospital is a potential exposure of their team to the virus when that child comes back to the Home. They also face the issue of PPE shortage, which furthers puts them and the children they care for at risk.

Goddard Riverside in New York City is providing front desk and cleaning staff in their senior and homeless facilities. Some staff and residents have already been infected with COVID-19 and are attempting to quarantine despite the close quarters.

Staff is struggling to find cleaning supplies and other necessities like water in local stores and online retailers, and when they do, they are price-gouged, increasing stress on their expense budget. Despite these challenges and limited cash flow, they are continuing to deliver services and can pay staff through at least the end of the month.

Northwestern Settlement, which provides preschool and elementary school for 1100 children across Chicago, went to a shelter-in-place order with only essential workers reporting to their jobs.  At the Settlement, realizing the importance of food distribution, employees turned the first floor of the building into a food distribution center for the families they serve.

Staff also deliver food to senior citizen centers and to some families who are unable to leave their apartment. Approximately 130 families come to the Settlement each day, and the number is anticipated to rise as hospitals have reached out asking if they could send referrals. 

While the CARES Act was a good start, it doesn’t go far enough to address the specific needs of human services nonprofits. That is why a coalition of nonprofit organizations are urging Congress to include a nonprofit track to ensure that human services nonprofits are supported as they respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

It requests the removal of the 500-employee cap for small business loans, improvements to the universal tax deduction proposed in the CARES Act, and an increase of the federal unemployment insurance reimbursement for self-insured nonprofits to 100 percent of costs. 

These measures will all help but must be paired with hazard pay increases for essential frontline workers. Designating human services employees as essential workers in any future hazard pay legislation will provide an immediate infusion of support for those workers on the front lines who need it now in order to continue to support individuals, children and families through the course of this pandemic.

Research shows that human services access and supports, known as the social determinants of health, are essential to a person’s health. As our country begins to analyze health disparities that have become even more evident among African Americans in this pandemic, these social determinants of health play an important role in addressing those disparities. 

Yet the data shows that while the United States outspends its peers on healthcare, it massively underspends on human services, which are key to achieving health equity and developing a more preventative and lower-cost health care system.

As integral partners in the health and human services delivery system, the ability of community-based human services organizations to continue to address the social determinants of health and improve outcomes even in the midst of this pandemic must be fully supported.

America’s human services nonprofits don’t measure success in terms of profits — we measure success by improvements in the health and well-being of all those we serve.

Our nation’s measure of success in the face of this deadly virus will be how well resources are allocated among essential employees, including those in the human services sector, who are critical to achieving a healthier, stronger, and more equitable society.

Susan N. Dreyfus is president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Ilana Levinson is a senior director for government relations for the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. 


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