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As the coronavirus pandemic races through nursing homes in Rhode Island and across the country, rumblings of protest are rising here among workers on the front lines of the public health crisis.

On Wednesday, a group of unionized nursing home workers staged a noisy, drive-by protest outside the Bannister Center for Rehabilitation and Health Care in Providence, demanding “hazard pay” for workers who say they are increasingly fearful for their health and that of their families.

The protestors -- members of the New England Local 1199 of the Service Employees Union (SEUI) -- drove, caravan-style, around the block, honking and waving as they passed the center’s front entrance.  Outside, a few women wearing masks and name tags held up signs. One read “Front Line Heroes.” Among them was Nicole Jean-Gilles, a 59-year-old registered nurse.

Jean-Gilles told that “we are not qualified,’’ she said, “because we don't have any COVID-19 in our building.”

Though workers say several staff have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, the state Health Department as of Thursday had not reported that any residents had become infected.

Officials at Bannister could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. 

The Rhode Island Health Care Association, which represents 64 of Rhode Island’s nursing homes, also is calling for hazard pay for front-line staff in its nursing homes.  In a statement released April 8, the association asked the state to provide an additional $1,000 per week to every staff member working in nursing homes during the COVID-19 crisis, saying the money could come from federal funds.

David Levesque, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Office of Health and Human Services, said in an email that the state is already providing “millions of dollars” in resources to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and home health and agencies that serve people with developmental disabilities. The state also approved a 10-percent rate increase for Medicaid reimbursements during the crisis to help nursing homes and those other organizations to pay for increased COVID-19 related expenses, Levesque said, such as overtime, cleaning, and additional staffing. 

How that additional funding is used, however, is up to the nursing homes and other  organizations that receive it. Nursing homes are not required to report back to the state, he said, on how the funds are being used.

In Rhode Island, nursing homes employ 10,000 people, including maintenance workers,  administrative staff and dietary aides as well as nurses and CNAs, the association said in a statement.  These workers care for more than 22,000 residents each year.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, also has proposed federal legislation to create a COVID-19 Heros Fund for all front-line essential workers. 

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo has referred to workers at nursing homes and other front-line health care providers as “heros” and repeatedly urged those who are healthy to continue to go to work.

Staffing shortages at some nursing homes have been described as critical, with workers doubling up shifts to fill in for co-workers who are either too sick or too scared of becoming infected to go to work.

Jean-Gilles, the registered nurse at Bannister, said that some of her lower-paid co-workers continue to show up for work even though unemployment benefits, plus the extra $600 a week funded by the federal government under the CARES Act, would probably pay more. 

“We love our residents, so that's why we all come to work,’’ she said.

About 400 nursing home residents in Rhode Island have been infected with COVID-19, and as of Wednesday 55 had died, according to Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state Health Department.

-Health Reporter Lynn Arditi, larditi@thepublicsradio.org