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Nursing home worker steps up during coronavirus pandemic: ‘If not me, who?’

Shantonia Jackson and other certified nursing assistants who are members of SEIU have been desperately needed during the pandemic that has ravaged care homes.

This organized labor profile was underwritten by SEIU Healthcare.

Few people have spent as much time on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic as Shantonia Jackson.

She’s a certified nursing assistant at City View Multi-Care center, the Cicero nursing home at 5825 W. Cermak Road struck hard by the first wave of coronavirus infections. Since March, 249 cases and 15 deaths have been reported at the facility, according to the state. Among the dead: one of Jackson’s coworkers, just weeks from retirement after 30 years.

With no one to immediately fill the gap in care, the 51-year-old Austin mother of three adult daughters suppressed her fear of the virus and endured 16-hour-shifts — sometimes six or seven days a week — to assist the 70 or so patients on her floor.

“I was alone [on my floor] for like three months of COVID and it was very stressful and challenging, but I couldn’t just stop and quit because the residents needed my help,” says Jackson, a resident of Austin on Chicago’s west side. “It was just something I knew I had to do because, if not me, who?”

Jackson is one of many certified nursing assistants in the Chicago area who perform the work of caring for fragile elderly and psych patients in long term care facilities.

Shantonia Jackson is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) with SEIU Healthcare.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

They’re on call to help residents eat meals, exercise, use the bathroom and bathe and groom. CNAs also take vital signs such as blood pressure and temperature and provide welcome social contact and emotional support to those who are quarantined and cut off from friends and family.

“We’re all hands-on with everything. We’re here to brush your teeth, comb your hair, pick your clothes out, clean you,” says Jackson. “I’m really hands-on with the emotion as well, just talking to people and making sure they’re okay.”

CNAs have long been an underappreciated part of the healthcare industry, one that’s staffed by relatively low-paid women; disproportionately women of color.

“People take CNAs for granted, they think they’re not worth anything,” says Jackson. “They say, ‘Oh, she’s just a poop cleaner.’”

Jackson and 700 nursing home workers took to the picket line this week against the owner of City View and 10 other nursing homes in Chicago and the suburbs, Infinity Healthcare Management. The picketers are demanding $15-an-hour or more base pay, hazard pay and better working conditions. The strike continued Wednesday, and union officials said no new talks had been scheduled. Infinity officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the strike or the Jackson’s working conditions.

A lack of pay and respect is largely why the Albany Park native left the field in 2000 after four years. She worked a string of jobs elsewhere, including stints at AT&T and Brinks Home Security.

Jackson returned to health care in 2012 because she missed directly helping people.

“Caring for people is a passion of mine, especially older people,” she says. “My grandparents died when I was a teen and I missed out on spending time with them in my 20s and 30s. I just love being around the elderly now.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the job of CNA is seen in a new light. They’re classified as essential workers. That’s the term adopted to describe vital jobs that require people to leave their homes and risk their lives on a daily basis.

Those employed at long-term care facilities like City View are particularly vulnerable to COVID. The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 616,000 residents and staffers in nearly 23,000 facilities and killed more than 91,000. That’s nearly 40 percent of recorded COVID deaths in the United States this year, according to the latest data from Kaiser Health News. An estimated 1,000 of those deaths are CNAs.

The health care workers who’ve remained COVID-free thus far must deal with the physical and emotional toll of long hours, the disruption of routines, and losing colleagues and residents they once saw on a daily basis.

And it’s far from over: nursing homes are bracing for more shocks as COVID cases continue to surge to frightening new levels in recent weeks.

Jackson describes having feelings of “overwhelmedness” and moments of COVID fatigue but says: “I look at it as rewarding because I know at the end of the day, God is gonna bless me.”