Minority Health Care Support Staff Bear Brunt of Pandemic’s Impact

NIH-funded study is the first to examine frontline workers in underserved communities

January 20, 2022

Minorities and women working custodial and other support roles in health care facilities faced major professional disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study is the first of its kinds to focus on the experiences of health care industry support workers for underserved communities during the pandemic. While nurses and physicians are the most recognized frontline workers in the industry, other roles, including custodial and food services staff, comprise nearly 7 million people, most of whom are Black and Latinx women and live in the communities they serve.

Researchers interviewed minority women in support health care roles in hospitals, nursing homes, and home care sites from four counties in New Jersey with high rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths. It found:

  • The pandemic disrupted worker’ responsibilities and roles. Concerns ranged from changes in job duties, increased hours and learning new technology to changes in safety protocol and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Workers experienced testing irregularity; some reported frequent testing, while others were not required to take tests. Many took on the responsibility for testing themselves to keep their families safe.
  • Workers experienced fear and uncertainties, including concerns about contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to their families or losing their jobs or a portion of their income. They also expressed concerns about informing their employers about possible exposure and the resulting stigma among co-workers after testing positive.
  • Workers’ vaccine skepticism and decisions evolved over time. Initial concerns about vaccines ranged from questions on secondary effects, trials data, and experiences of failed public health interventions in minority populations. Those who were opposed to vaccination reported their opinions changed after watching co-workers get vaccinated and from acquiring vaccine data from reliable sources. Workers also voiced concern about vaccine mandates and the implication for their current employment.

“Our findings illustrate the critical need for health systems to dedicate resources to improve the work conditions for this marginalized workforce, including offering resources that support resilience as well as addressing wages, physical conditions and mental demands, health, safety, and well-being to retain them in their roles,” said study author Zorimar Rivera-Núñez, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Public Health in Piscataway, New Jersey.

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