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
''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
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
''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
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.