Leslie: Alaska’s Pioneer Homes need a lifeline

Photo courtesy David Leslie.

By David Leslie

For almost a year, I have been working at the Fairbanks Pioneer Home. I’m currently an activities aide after spending my first two months working the floor as an assisted living aide.

The State of Alaska is currently failing our vulnerable Elders, their hard-working employees and our community at large.

The fault is not with my co-workers, but the State, whose inability or unwillingness to adapt to current situation, namely how they are handing the ongoing Covid pandemic, the increase in levels of care for residents, and failure to maintain staff, which is evident with the 17 medical positions that are currently unfilled.

David Leslie

First, Covid pay ended early this year. This means when workers are sent home with Covid, it comes out of our own paid time off, which is meant for our own personal, sick and vacation leave. This time off is necessary for taking time to prevent burnout, and things such as doctors appointments, court dates, important events like graduations and weddings, and much more—but now we must hoard it of lest we miss a week, or more, of work.

This incentivizes my co-workers to hide symptoms of illness, which increases the risk that our vulnerable and susceptible residents will be exposed and which means other workers will risk getting sick when caring for them. 

Not only does this increase the likelihood of spreading a dangerous and deadly virus, but if you do not test positive for Covid, you must continue to work, even if visibly ill. Staffing shortages mean everyone must work at all times unless you have Covid.

Those who do miss work because of Covid have been asked to postpone doctor appointments, as they used up their paid time off while sick. In a state that struggles with access to health care, our own State health care workers shouldn’t be missing their own appointments because they contracted a virus that could cause lifelong complications or death.

What I’ve described is no secret, potential employees see and hear what’s happening, and look for jobs that pay better and offer more support. Current and new employees quit to find better working conditions.

Those who provide care to our vulnerable Elders—the nurses, CNAs, housekeeping, kitchen staff—need to be paid enough to handle the emotional toll of caring for our them, while being exposed to Covid for weeks at a time and the unique difficulty of caring for residents with dementia who have Covid.

The staffing shortages are exacerbated by the fact that there has been an increase in the levels of care needed by the residents of assisted living facilities. As the pandemic raged through communal leaving spaces, those who can postpone moving in have done so, leaving those with more needs to move in, and Pioneer Homes need to maintain a certain level of occupancy.

This creates a situation where less workers have to provide more care than ever before.

If the State wants to hire the best people for the job, which our sick and dying Elders deserve, the State must pay competitive wages along with competitive benefits, including higher wages, more time off, and Covid pay. I, as a single bachelor, am struggling to stay afloat and working full time with occasional overtime is not enough for me to even create a savings account or afford basic maintenance on my car.

That means single moms who work for the Pioneer Home struggle to provide for their child, much less children, on their own. Given that Alaska has some of the highest rates of domestic violence, and how a higher rate of my co-workers are women of color, it means the State is only making it more difficult to stay self-sufficient and safe, from both economic violence and real life physical harm.

Come my first full year as a State of Alaska employee, I will have received an increase in pay, both from having stayed and through a new union contract. But all the raises together do not even meet inflation.

My real wages have decreased since I began working here.

Imagine being a single mother, working hard and doing overtime to provide care and comfort to our Elders, only to afford less for you and your family. This is not the American dream, nor a source of stability for State employees. 

The State of Alaska needs to pay the workers caring for our Elders what they are worth, and that means being able to raise a family on your own. Failure to do so means the State does not want the best for our vulnerable Elders, and wants to exploit predominantly women, who are disproportionately Black, Alaska Native and Asian Pacific Islander, the same demographics who have been affected the most by the Covid pandemic.

The State must do this without raising the costs for our Elders who live in the Pioneer Homes. In a nation with so much wealth, it should not be our Elders and their families who are pinched for more cash, but those with plenty who can afford to help.

To increase the pay and benefits of health care workers will allows them to take better care of our Elders, better care of their families, and better care of our communities at large. I want the Pioneer Homes to be the best they can, so people like my mom and grandma will be taken care of with the humanity and dignity they deserve when they need it.

David Leslie is a queer Inupiaq Inuit from Fairbanks.

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3 Comments on "Leslie: Alaska’s Pioneer Homes need a lifeline"

  1. David, give us the readers and idea of what the pay is to help us help you.

    • As I said, I’m just a single bachelor. You need to ask single mothers how much they need.

      To be honest, it’s sad how many folks don’t know what that is.

      I think it needs to be enough for someone in danger of domestic violence to pay, at least enough to pay rent at two places for one month and furnish it with the basics.

      Enough to plan an exit from a violent situation, while being able to provide for your children.

  2. Janie Evanson Henderson | August 30, 2022 at 8:31 am | Reply

    Salary Range at Pioneer Homes range depending upon job and experience. According to Glassdoor average annual salaries look like this:
    RN: $87K
    LPN: $61K
    CNA: $35K
    PCT: $34K

    Cost of living in various communities across Alaska that have Pioneer Homes varies as well (annual for a single person) according 247wallst.com
    Anchorage: $45K
    Fairbanks: $46K
    Palmer: $45K
    Sitka: $46K
    Cost of living for a family would, of course, increase significantly.

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