After pressure from desperately understaffed nursing homes, state officials on Tuesday said they will soon grant the facilities permission to boost some workers’ pay by 25 percent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the virus rips through the state, the jobs of nursing home staff have become newly hazardous. The virus has infected not only elderly residents but also workers, in one case killing a nurse. As workers go out sick or stay home due to fear, facilities have struggled to retain staff, especially the low-paid nursing aides who earn barely more than minimum wage.
The state’s decision to increase nursing home pay came as the virus continued its deadly sweep across Massachusetts.
In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced the death of police Officer Jose Fontanez, a 29-year member of the force, who died from complications from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“We lost a hero today to this virus," Walsh said. "We honor him and remember him as a hero, because as a police officer he served our community and stood in harm’s way to protect us. He made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Statewide, the total number of coronavirus deaths rose by 113 cases to 957, the highest daily death toll yet.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases climbed by 1,296 to 28,163. The Department of Public Health also reported a total of 126,551 people in the state had been tested, up from 122,049 a day earlier.
Given the grim new numbers, Governor Charlie Baker again rejected the notion of reopening the state’s economy too soon. “Opening before we’re ready," he said, "will only make matters worse.”
The crisis has been particularly acute at nursing homes across the state, where so far 46 percent of the deaths have occurred — and where workers have increasingly called in sick. On Tuesday the state reported there are 3,907 cases of the virus among long-term care facility residents and staff.
At the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley nursing home, for example, where one nurse died over the weekend from the virus, 70 of the facility’s 204 employees are out sick, according to the facility.
“I think fear is playing a large factor in a lot of this,” said Tim Killian, a spokesman for the Littleton facility.
Staffing agencies that place temporary workers into these facilities have found it difficult to fill the empty shifts because the state does not allow temporary workers to earn “crisis pay.”
“We are seeing a lot of our nurses go out of state because they can get paid better in other states during this crisis,” said David Coppins, the CEO and cofounder of IntelyCare, a Quincy-based nursing home staffing agency. He said he now has 30 percent fewer staff working in Massachusetts than he did at the beginning of March.
“We are failing because we can’t pay our workers enough,” he said. "I get directors of nursing and administrators calling us and begging us for help.”
To prevent price gouging, Massachusetts regulates the hourly wages of temporary nursing home workers who are placed in their jobs through outside staffing agencies. A certified nursing assistant can be paid at most $27.42 per hour on a weekday in Greater Boston and as much as $29.60 on the weekend. But workers generally do not see all that money because the agencies take a cut.
The state also sets the rates for agency registered nurses and licensed practical nurses at facilities with Medicaid-funded patients. These workers can make as much as $63 and $56 per hour, respectively.
After pressure from agencies like IntelyCare, which sent a letter earlier this month urging the state to allow agencies to pay more, the state on Tuesday announced that it will allow these temporary workers to be paid 25 percent more. The state has also allocated money to nursing homes so they can afford to pay their permanent workers more amid the crisis.
A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said the state will also soon remove the wage cap for temporary workers in government-run facilities like the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke and in special facilities dedicated to serving only COVID-19 patients.
These changes are underway and will be finalized soon, spokeswoman Jessica Lyons said.
Staffing agencies on Tuesday said they were not aware the state had agreed to pay temporary workers more.
“That is awesome,” said Peter Leibowitz, CEO of Worldwide Staffing, which is based in Longmeadow. “I think it will be good for the nursing homes."
Leibowitz said in the meantime he had already been paying workers slightly more out of his own profit margins to help nursing homes get staff. The number of workers he normally employs in Massachusetts has dropped by 25 percent during the crisis because nursing homes could not offer crisis pay.
Nursing home operators also praised the state’s decision, saying it will help them fill desperately needed shifts. But more important, they said, there is a link between workers’ low pay and the rapid spread of the virus through these facilities.
Many nursing home employees must work in several facilities to make ends meet and cannot afford to stay home during the public health crisis. As a result, many may have been accidental spreaders of the virus between their various workplaces.
“Sort of like the pied piper with the kids that follow them, this is how it is spreading between buildings,” said Frank Romano, chief executive of Essex Group Management, which owns six nursing homes and two assisted living residences.
Romano said nursing home owners prefer not to use staffing agencies because they are expensive — and because the homes would prefer to have their own staff who know patients well. But because the economy had been booming, it was hard to find workers. So, in desperation, homes like the ones he runs have relied on the agencies to meet their staffing requirements.
“If we are going to learn anything [from this crisis], we need to sit down and say that we need to pay CNAs and nurses in skilled nursing homes a living wage," he said.
Romano said he lost staff at his Milford facility to an Amazon warehouse that opened there. Bank of America also operated five branches in that area that paid between $17 and $20 an hour and also lured away staff, he said.
“If the reimbursement from both Medicare and Medicaid doesn’t keep up with that cost of the labor index, you are going to put stress on the system and force temporary labor to come into the buildings, and that is one of the big contributors to the problems today,” he said.
Romano is part of a simultaneous push by nursing home operators to also increase the pay of regular nursing home staff during the crisis. Many nursing homes receive a large portion of their funding from Medicaid, a program that covers nursing care for low-income seniors and is jointly funded by the state and the federal government.
Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which represents nursing homes, has urged the state to provide more funding for these facilities. In addition to extra staff costs, the homes have also had to pay more for personal protective equipment for workers.
Gregorio cautioned against lifting the cap on pay for temporary workers if that move is not coupled with an increase in state funding for the homes so they can afford to pay those higher wages.
But more important, she said, the state should give nursing homes the funds they need to double the pay of their permanent staff during the crisis.
The state has so far announced $50 million in additional funding for nursing homes, to be distributed over four months. But Gregorio’s association has calculated that nursing homes need $130 million per month.
“It’s critically important to begin first with retaining the existing workers we have and recruiting those who want to come work in nursing home facilities and would, if it weren’t for this is essentially a minimum-wage job,” she said.
Gal Tziperman Lotan, Martin Finucane, Travis Andersen, and David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report.