Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/313/metro/Haitian_nursing_assistants_seek_workplace_respect+.shtml

Haitian nursing assistants seek workplace respect
The Boston Globe

By Monica Rhor, Globe Staff,

n her 14 years working in nursing homes, Rhode Orisma has been spat at and berated. She has endured racial epithets and insults aimed at her Haitian heritage. She has been ordered to stop speaking her native language, and ordered around by patients who never bother to learn her name.

Her response has always been the same. She sings. She prays. And she bears it.

''As an immigrant, there are so many steps you have to take to get ahead,'' said Orisma, 37, who lives in Dorchester. ''Sometimes, even though you don't really like the job, you have to work to support yourself and your family.''

But, to Orisma and hundreds of other Haitian nursing assistants, their job is often considered the lowest rung of the career ladder in nursing homes, rehab centers, and assisted living facilities. Haitian immigrants, who make up the majority of certified nursing assistants in the Boston area, say they are often treated with disdain by supervisors, prohibited from speaking Haitian Creole even while on breaks, and mistreated by patients.

So, with the help of ministers and community activists, they are working to improve working conditions and bringing public awareness to problems they face at work. Over the last four months, at small gatherings in churches and private homes, nursing home workers have come together to outline the obstacles they face and to brainstorm possible solutions.

At one of the group's first meetings in June, nursing home workers, community activists, and church pastors met with Governor Mitt Romney to lobby for better working conditions. In the coming months, the group also plans to meet with nursing home officials, the state attorney general's office, and state officials.

''These workers want to do a better job, but they are not given a chance to do a professional job,'' said Muradieu Joseph, an organizer with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which is spearheading the campaign to organize nursing home workers. ''They are not just asking for a better environment for themselves, but also a better environment for the patients.''

The cause resonates throughout the area's Haitian community, which numbers about 50,000. About 50 to 60 percent of Haitian women work as nursing assistants, earning an average of $10 per hour, said Mona D. Phanor, who runs the Massachusetts Institute for Health Careers, which offers training for nursing assistants. About 80 to 90 percent of certified nursing assistants in Greater Boston are of Haitian origin. There are about 22,000 certified nursing assistants in the state.

In churches with large Haitian congregations, such as Temple Salem Seventh Day Adventist in Dorchester, talk often revolves around the concerns of nursing home workers, said the Rev. Pierre Omeler, the church pastor. ''It is a very important issue for us and for our community,'' he said.

Many Haitian immigrants gravitate to the field because it requires only an 80-hour training course and the work dovetails with many of the traditional values they bring from home, said Phanor. ''They grow up with their grandmothers in their house. They know how to take care of other people,'' she said. ''We just think their work should be valued and respected.''

Too often, say workers like Orisma, that is not the case.

''It's a good job. The job itself is good, but the people you are dealing with make you feel like you are not a human being. They treat you very, very low,'' said Orisma, who walked out of her first nursing home job because conditions were so poor. At her current job, she says, conditions are better.

''I know I am working for money, because I need money to pay the bills. But, at the same time, I need respect,'' said Orisma.

Many workers say nursing homes are often understaffed, forcing them to care for more patients than they should, said Muradieu. State regulations call for a ratio of five residents per nursing assistant, but Joseph said that in some cases a single nursing assistant cares for 11 or more patients.

The nursing home industry has already taken steps to address the workers' concerns, said Carolyn Blanks, vice president of labor and workforce development with the Massachusetts  Extended Care Federation. ''This is an issue we've been working on for a while: improving working conditions and quality of care by improving the quality of care,'' said Blanks, who pointed to the federation's support of the federal Nursing Home Quality Initiative as an example.

The 2001 legislative package was designed to improve training and education of certified nursing assistants through a scholarship program and a career ladder initiative. In addition, about 70 nursing homes in the state are offering cultural diversity classes, English classes, and other programs to help nursing assistants move up the ladder.

''I see the glass as being half full and getting fuller,'' said Blanks. ''We recognize and embrace the fact that the work force now and in the future is predominantly from immigrant populations. But, a lot more does need to be done.''

Both sides agree that the language issue remains one of the biggest challenges.

''It can create communication barriers when most of the supervisors are white and born in America, but it seems reasonable that when people are on break they should be able to talk in their own language,'' said Blanks.

In some nursing homes, however, Haitian workers have been told not to speak Creole even while on break. Supervisors say the complaints come from elderly residents, who do not like hearing a language they don't understand.

But, for Haitian immigrants, the prohibition often feels like a personal assault.

''It is a big problem for Haitians,'' said Oxzane Osner, 37, who has worked as a nursing home assistant since she immigrated from Haiti two years ago. ''Other people can speak Spanish all the time everywhere, but Haitian people cannot speak Creole. It makes you feel like you are not like everybody else, like you are nothing.''

For years, many nursing assistants have been afraid to speak out about mistreatment for fear of losing their jobs. At her first job, Orisma recalled, her supervisor pointed to an exit door and informed her that she was free to leave if she didn't like the conditions.

However, more may now be willing to come forward and join the organizing efforts, said Joseph. ''They don't want to take it anymore. Some people are ready to get the message out.''

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.