In late March, Loretta Wright had a frontline view of how bad the coronavirus pandemic had become in her home borough of the Bronx, with over 8,600 hospitalized at the time.
But the caregiver in a home for girls and young women in foster care was still stunned when she started seeing trucks parked every day outside the hospital near her job in Manhattan. Inside, body bags were being layered in tiers.
“Every day I walk past those trucks and I look – I have no choice but to look because it’s there – and I just start praying,” said Wright, 55. “Lord, just bring all of us out of this.”
For workers like Wright in New York City’s group residences for foster youth, the coronavirus pandemic risks are grave. Her seven-story Manhattan facility, run by the nonprofit Good Shepherd Services, aims to prepare youth for lives as independent adults. That means 46 teens and young adults who live there come and go, supervised by roughly 50 staff commuting from heavily infected neighborhoods citywide to fill three shifts per day.
That room to grow for young people, the circulating staff and visitors has become an increasing coronavirus exposure risk. Without widespread testing available for the general public, it is impossible to screen visitors for coronavirus, interviews with directors of similar programs throughout the city revealed.
To date, the nonprofits’ access to tests have mostly been reserved for symptomatic youth. At the housing program where Wright works, for example, young people have their temperature taken whenever they return from off-site trips.
On April 25, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded access to coronavirus tests for some first responders, health care workers and essential employees. But Wright, her colleagues and staff at other residences similar to Good Shepherd say they have mostly not been able to get tested themselves. Instead, each time they clock in, employees use a buddy system – taking their own temperatures with a colleague watching to confirm and note its results.
New Yorkers working in human services jobs have been considered “essential workers” since March 22, exempting them from stay-at-home orders. But as they trudge to work each day on public transit – risking exposure to the deadly coronavirus even as some co-workers have decided to stay home – new state and federal policies have not guaranteed a funding stream for cash-strapped nonprofits to supplement the pay of essential workers like Wright.
“We’re a little bit forgotten,” said another Good Shepherd employee, Rodina Roberts, 41, of Queens.
City officials could not be reached for comment on this story. But in a statement to NBC News early last month about the extra expenses that have fallen on nonprofits, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said the city will provide funds to cover “COVID-related costs.”
And just two weeks ago, Cuomo called on the federal government to provide a 50 percent bonus to essential workers in the public and private sectors.
But with New York City and the state government anticipating multi–billion-dollar budget deficits, it remains unclear to what extent local nonprofits will be reimbursed for the overtime costs they’ve incurred.
The nonprofit that has employed Roberts and Wright for 20 years has so far managed to cover them. Since March 21, Good Shepherd Services – one of the city’s larger foster care agencies, contracted for around 400 beds – has raised the pay for direct-care workers to time-and-a-half. That bumps up the salaries of more experienced group home youth counselors from nearly $20 an hour to nearly $29, or from $15 an hour up to $22 for entry-level counselors.
Denise Hinds, associate executive director of Good Shepherd Services, said the pay increase was to reward those who continued to come to work despite colleagues getting ill, and to keep the facilities housing some of the city’s most vulnerable young people adequately staffed.
“We were beginning to see more and more staff being exposed and coming down with different symptoms,” Hinds said. “We felt like we needed to compensate those people for putting themselves and their families at risk.”
She added that the duration of the pay boost will depend on whether the city reimburses them – and to date, that remains an unknown.
Jim Purcell, president of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, said New York City’s foster care providers are still waiting for the funds. And they don’t know, when and if the money arrives, what types of employees’ pandemic-related pay will be covered.
“There’s been no feedback on those requests, and no money has moved,” said Purcell, whose trade association represents nonprofits. “Will it include overtime or emergency pay for staff caring for children, as well staff, cooks, and drivers?”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states including New York have passed executive orders qualifying government child welfare workers as essential workers. But those orders don’t include extra pay for nongovernmental workers in 24-hour foster care group homes, nor reimbursement for the many nonprofits that have opted to provide hazard pay. In at least one state, Vermont, one of two houses in the state legislature has passed a bill that would provide $1,000 per month to full-time workers in residential treatment centers.
The Good Shepherd facility where Wright works is a long-term residence for youth between the ages of 13 and 21. All are in foster care, either because a judge believed they were being abused or neglected at home, or because an overwhelmed parent voluntarily placed them. Most residents have been there for between one and three years, and receive access to a social worker, mental health care and education support. The nonprofit is funded by the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.
Throughout the pandemic, the risks at the homes run by Good Shepherd have remained high, according to staff members. Two weeks ago, a recently arrived teen resident tested positive for the coronavirus after her first night in the facility, Hinds said.
What’s more, at the onset of the pandemic, Roberts said, young people were resistant to observing the city’s strict shelter-in-place orders, and it has been difficult to keep them in the facility. “When we’d have conversations with them it’d be like pulling teeth to try to get them to understand,” she said. “I carry a thermometer wherever I go right now.”
Wright said nonetheless, she worries about exposing her 86-year-old mother, whom she lives with in the Bronx. Wright’s mother calls her every day after she arrives at work. “First of all, she wants to know I got to work,” she said. “Then she wants to know: ‘Everything OK down there? Nobody sick?”
Many co-workers at Good Shepherd are staying away from work because they have pre-existing conditions. Wright said as a result, her fifth-floor team is down from five permanent employees to just two. To make up for the loss, roughly 20 staff members from other Good Shepherd programs that have closed, such as after-school programs, are training to fill in.
That has resulted in mounting challenges in the group home, where children and young adults with a history of trauma are a challenge to care for even without a pandemic raging. Disturbances like fights, or attention-seeking teens pulling fire alarms, can be daily occurrences. But in a city with almost 175,000 coronavirus cases and more than 14,000 deaths, first responders including probation officers in the juvenile justice system are not always readily available.
Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected].