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Omicron whips through the workforce, pushing overstretched staffs to the brink

Donna Gadoua, a caregiver for Home Instead, assisted client Ellen Hajema in her home in Hudson.Jim Davis/Globe Staff


As Omicron whips through the workforce, caregiving agencies are turning away new patients. Restaurants are shutting down. Construction jobs are being delayed. Retailers, including Macy’s, are limiting hours.

And some small business owners are at the breaking point.

The colossally contagious COVID-19 variant emerged at the worst possible time for employers, as workers — many of them vaccinated and eager to socialize — were gathering with family members over the holidays. Infections flattened entire families at once in some cases. And for organizations that don’t have the luxury of allowing people to work remotely, the surge in positive cases is exacerbating a long-simmering staffing crisis that has grown even more urgent in recent months as record numbers of people quit their jobs.

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Airlines are canceling flights, day cares are closing classrooms, and nursing homes are restricting admissions. More than 20 percent of New York subway operators and conductors were out of work on any given day last week, leading to suspended service and reduced schedules. A Walmart in Auburndale, Fla., had to temporarily close its doors because so many employees called in sick.

In Massachusetts, 12,213 public school staff members — nearly 9 percent — tested positive over the two-week period ending Wednesday. Despite already scaling back bus service last month due to staffing shortages, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has dropped more trips as drivers call in sick, and is also reducing commuter rail service on two lines. And at Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest health care system, more than 2,300 workers were out with COVID over the course of a week, prompting executives to call for volunteers to help at their vaccination and testing sites.

On Tuesday, Service Employees International Union Local 509 sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker imploring him to protect essential workers by implementing a temporary telework policy for all state workers who can do their jobs at home, ordering a statewide mask mandate, and providing masks, tests, and hazard pay to those who do in-person work.

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In a statement to the Globe, the Baker administration responded by pointing to the state’s emergency COVID sick leave program and bonuses for front-line workers from the federal ARPA program, as well as its indoor mask advisory and executive department telework program, but did not address the widespread staffing shortages.

“In the last two weeks, it feels like the game has definitely changed,” said Emily Kanter, co-owner of Cambridge Naturals, which started closing its stores in Cambridge and Boston early due to a surge of exposed employees stuck at home. “There’s also just the persistent dread of: What’s going to happen tomorrow? Who’s going to need to call out? What procedures are we going to need to implement? What memo am I going to have to write to the team and to our customers to help everyone feel safe?”

The difficulty of getting tested is further hampering people’s ability to return to work. And with the guidance on quarantine times and masks and testing changing rapidly — and varying from source to source — employers don’t know what to do, said Greg Reibman, president of the Charles River Regional Chamber.

“The clarity that we did have for a great deal of this pandemic is no longer there,” he said.

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Home Instead, a home care agency in Northborough and Natick, said that at least 31 of roughly 200 employees have been exposed or tested positive since Christmas. The existing staffing shortage has gone from “bad to a lot worse,” said general manager Angela Brunson Bartlett, forcing the agency to try to fill in the gaps with healthy workers and ask clients’ families to take on caregiving duties.

Chelsea Clain, a 28-year-old Home Instead client care manager who lives in Framingham, thinks she was exposed during a family gathering on Christmas Eve — although given the cough she had the day before (her rapid test was negative), she may have been the culprit. She and her mother, grandmother, brother, and her brother’s fiancee all tested positive a few days later. Clain also assumes she gave it to a friend who came to watch her 2½-year-old son before Clain knew she was sick. Clain, a single mom, has been working remotely and keeping her son home, and she just found out his day care was shutting down for the week due to positive tests among staff and children.

Clain’s father also tested positive after a separate Christmas Eve gathering, along with an aunt, uncle, two cousins and their husbands, and a baby. All told, Clain is aware of at least 14 people in her immediate circle who contracted the virus that has spread “like wildfire” since Christmas Eve, including five who haven’t been able to work.

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“It’s terrifying,” she said. “The amount of contagion that can happen so rapidly, it’s amazing.”

At Advocates in Framingham, a human services agency serving Central and Eastern Massachusetts, more than 90 of 1,500 staffers tested positive last week; most of them work with people who have developmental disabilities or mental health challenges. Seven group homes are under quarantine due to infected residents, meaning staffers can’t help cover shortages at other sites.

Some employees were already working 18-hour shifts to make up for shortages, or living in group homes to cover shifts, said president Diane Gould, and now the organization is calling on employees with office jobs to provide direct care to clients. Some individuals who attend day programs have had to stay home because there isn’t enough staff, and admissions to respite care have been closed.

“My fear is that it’s going to continue to increase for the next few weeks,” she said.

The Omicron surge is far from the worst thing some employers have had to deal with over the past two years. Boloco cofounder John Pepper was days from closing down his Mexican-food chain for good in the summer of 2020 when he found a way to keep the lights on in six of eight locations. But given the number of employees calling out because of positive COVID tests or exposure — 12 out of 50 since Christmas, as of late last week — in addition to those threatening to quit rather than comply with Boston’s Jan. 15 vaccine mandate, Pepper is temporarily closing one of his struggling Financial District stores. He’s also considering dropping labor-intensive smoothies from the menu.

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“You just put the pieces together and fight another month,” he said.

At the Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn, owner Rachel Miller is fighting to hang on every day. With at least 10 of 14 staffers testing positive in the past few weeks, including Miller, “all hell is breaking loose,” she said. She switched to takeout only, but is losing revenue from liquor sales and big ticket items such as the nine-course tasting menu she can only serve in-house.

“It’s just been a nightmare,” said Miller, who opened the restaurant in the fall of 2019 and didn’t have a chance to hit her stride before the virus swept in. “When does this stop?”

Ward 4, a Newton restaurant that opened in June, had to shut down for two weeks starting just before Christmas after nearly half of its 19 employees tested positive within a few days.

“It’s hard to build any kind of real momentum or trust within the community when something like this happens,” said director of operations Doug Peel, who was among those infected and also spread it to his wife and daughter. “I’m hoping this isn’t irreparable damage.”

At Muto Construction in Harwich, business has been booming as homeowners flocked to the Cape during the pandemic. But with a handful of his 15-plus employees testing positive recently, along with even more on subcontractors’ crews, owner Jasen Muto said, “it’s definitely a drag on production.” He’s trying to meet demand with healthy workers, but some of them were already on the job seven days a week, including Muto, who had COVID a year ago. “Almost everybody that works here has had it,” he said.

Donna Gadoua, a caregiver at Home Instead, was exposed to COVID on Dec. 14, her 54th birthday. It was her day off, and she went to help her sister-in-law in Lancaster care for her two grandchildren, as usual. But her sister-in-law had a sore throat, and shortly after Gadoua left to take care of her 81-year-old aunt with Alzheimer’s, she found out her sister-in-law, her sister-in-law’s daughter, and her daughter’s 18-month-old had tested positive. (The 50-something relative they caught it from is in the hospital on a ventilator, Gadoua said, and this week, her sister-in-law’s other daughter, the daughter’s husband, and their 10-month-old all tested positive, too.)

When Gadoua found out she was exposed, she immediately stopped working. Three days later, she tested positive. Other caregivers covered some of her cooking, cleaning, and medication administration duties while she was out sick, although one elderly couple in their 90s largely made do on their own. She asked her aunt’s son in New Hampshire to look after his mother, but his two sons had also come down with COVID and he didn’t want to put her at risk. The family hired another caregiver to come in a few times, but her aunt barely touched her Meals on Wheels deliveries while Gadoua was away, she said, subsisting largely on Little Debbie mini muffins and Ensure nutrition shakes.

“I felt like all these people were counting on me, and I was letting them down,” said Gadoua, whose husband also tested positive. “I was in tears the whole first week.”

Bartlett, the Home Instead general manager, said her staff has dealt with so much stress over the past two years that “we’ve passed our wall of exhaustion.”

“I think now,” she said, “this is just normal business.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.