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Nursing aides work in latent death traps. They deserve hazard pay | Editorial

The coronavirus continues to thrash the state, and Gov. Murphy can be excused for using phrases such as, “We are still at war” as we head into a foreboding winter.

But he also needs to acknowledge that the frontline soldiers in this war need combat pay, because their lives are about to become intolerable.

The certified nursing assistants (CNAs) at the state’s 370 nursing homes are in an impossible situation, sacrificing their own safety by doing back-breaking work that most of us wouldn’t even attempt. It is bad enough that the injury rate on this job is three times higher than that of construction workers. Now just showing up for work drops you into the epicenter of a COVID outbreak.

So it is startling that Murphy vetoed a bill last week that would provide modest hazard pay for these caregivers, and the Legislature must not let this matter rest on his governing gaffe, even if it takes an override.

It should not bear repeating that nursing homes will be marked as New Jersey’s greatest failure when the history of this crisis is written. It is reflected in the morbid arithmetic: Half of our state’s 14,600 fatalities occurred in these homes, and CNAs — usually female, underpaid, working multiple jobs, with child care issues of her own — face exposure as they tend to our sick, lonely, and bedridden seniors.

Since March, 14,500 workers have become infected and 122 have died.

Indeed, infection controls and protective equipment have improved since the spring, but let’s not delude ourselves: As of Friday, there are 216 active outbreaks in nursing homes, with almost as many employees (2,144) as residents (2,408) infected.

So at a time when New Jersey is facing another horrid spike, Murphy pleads poverty and won’t give these essential workers a better incentive to risk their lives — yet he somehow found the money to hand out $500 political bribes disguised as tax credit to one million households?

This is hilarious without actually being funny.

“We are disappointed that the administration vetoed this benefit, just as workers are facing more challenges,” says Milly Silva of 1199SEIU, the country’s largest health care union. “We urge them to take another look at how to provide hazard pay for the most dangerous jobs in the nation.”

Actually, Murphy — who acknowledged that nursing aides are “risking their own health and the health of their families” in his veto message — should take another look at a report he commissioned.

Released in June, the Manatt Report found a systemwide meltdown in our long-term care facilities, particularly in the treatment of our 15,600 CNAs. Its recommendation on Page 32 screams for the governor’s attention: “The state has not instituted . . . .supplemental pay to workers,” the authors wrote. “Wage enhancements can help mitigate the need for staff to continue to work across multiple facilities, decreasing the risk of exposure for themselves and residents.”

Then they cited Illinois as an example of one state that does it right, noting that it provides “an additional $2/hour for employees working during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order. . . .and expanded sick leave.”

You paid for the report, Governor. Now you can show that you learned from it.

Yes, Murphy has provided some help for CNAs after years of political stagnation. He signed a wage increase, but that law only required a $3 raise above the current state minimum ($11), and CNAs already average $15. He raised the historically-low Medicaid reimbursement rate for nursing homes, but employers don’t always pass the money on to nursing aides. He finally improved patient-to-CNA staffing ratios, but the cessation of historic exploitation cannot be construed as a reward for fighting COVID.

One sponsor, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, said she is exploring ways to make hazard pay more appealing to the governor and easier to administer.

She can start with the obvious: This virus has exposed the massive gap between the value of these workers and the lack of respect they get in return. Let’s acknowledge the risk they face just by showing up.

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