Opinion by Adam Lampert for the Rational Middle

As the owner of an assisted living and in-home care business in Dallas, I’ve watched with growing trepidation as nursing homes and elderly care facilities across the country make headlines with deadly outbreaks of coronavirus. At one nursing home in California, after a number of positive cases surfaced, the staff didn’t show up to work for two days, abandoning 83 elderly patients to fend for themselves. The patients were evacuated to safety, but the message was clear: our employees are everything. Without them, we’re doomed.

Fortunately, we have 120 dedicated employees—about 80 percent of whom are African and Hispanic immigrants—who are committed to our residents and their families. Not only have they implemented and followed safety protocols closely, but after we made the difficult decision to prohibit families from visiting their loved ones, they have stepped in to provide companionship and moral support to residents. Family members have told me they’re able to sleep at night knowing that their loved ones are in the hands of our caregivers. When it comes to our immigrant staff population, it is clear that they are willing to sacrifice their own safety and wellbeing to care for our seniors during this pandemic.

It’s difficult to overstate the selflessness of our immigrant workforce. As most of us shelter in place, immigrants continue their work as healthcare aides, grocery store cashiers and delivery people. They are putting themselves at risk to ensure we receive basic necessities and services. What we’re also seeing, though, is a dire shortage of these workers—especially in my field. The lack of trained staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in our region is putting us at a dangerous disadvantage as we battle this virus.

Even before coronavirus, immigrants were crucial to our business. In the U.S., 16.5 percent of all healthcare workers in 2018 were immigrants, and in my specific sector, the rates are much higher: 38.1 percent of home health aides, and 25.5 percent of personal care aides are foreign born, according to New American Economy. As the U.S. population ages, our business is growing faster than we can hire: the number of available home health care aide positions is projected to increase by 48.5 percent between 2012 and 2022. And yet over the last three years, the White House has made it incredibly challenging to hire the staff we need. This administration has cut back on green cards and refugee resettlements, issued travel bans affecting immigrants and further restricted visas to this same group.  Now, in the midst of a national crisis, the president has signed an executive order restricting green card-based immigration for 60 days. The White House says this is meant to protect American businesses; in fact, it does the opposite.

As Covid cases continue to rise, staffing shortages are worsening. When the local schools closed, several of our workers cut back their hours to care for at-home children. Another took leave because her grandchild was sick. If staff members have any symptoms, even the common cold, we are forced to take them off the schedule and quarantine them until we can test them for coronavirus – and filling their shifts can create significant overtime costs. I was recently contacted by a rehab facility that was desperate to fill caregiver positions because they experienced a Covid case in their facility and many staff members left. Understandably, we are reluctant to expose our own staff to a known Covid case for many reasons, not the least of which is that we would be stretching our staff into additional overtime and potentially exposing other clients in the process. Our employees simply can’t take on much more.

For now, we’re taking things day-by-day and trying to keep up the spirits of our residents. We are fortunate that we have had only one caregiver contract the virus, and she was able to isolate quickly. Nevertheless, the prospect of others getting sick is like waiting for a hurricane to make landfall. If a high number of employees are forced to quarantine at home, it could be catastrophic for our residents and clients.

When this crisis ends—and certainly before the next one—we need to respond to the immigration policies that have created these shortages. But we also need to support the millions of immigrants who are risking their lives during this time. Immigrants are vital to our economy, our healthcare system and to the wellbeing of our society. I hope we can honor their sacrifices in the aftermath of this pandemic by becoming more welcoming. The safety of our seniors depends on it.

Adam Lampert is the CEO of Manchester Place Care Homes and Cambridge Caregivers in Dallas and a member of Texans for Economic Growth.

Immigrants are caring for our seniors during pandemic