For this month's Still Working oral history interview, we spoke with Magdeline Smith, a CNA at Pawtucket Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation on Gil Avenue in Pawtucket. Magdeline is a member of SEIU 1199NE and is active in the Fight for $15. Thanks to Emmanuel Falk and Fil Eden at SEIU for helping to arrange this interview.

This interview has be edited and re-sequenced for clarity and length.


My name is Magdeline Smith. I'm from West Africa -- Liberia. I grew up in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, then I came to this country in 2004. Since then I've been working in the health field, that is, nursing homes.

Liberia

The area where I lived in Monrovia was the city. We'd go for vacation time to the rural area, the village to see everything that goes on there like goat farming, going fishing, picking fruit, planting banana, we'd go up to the village to get those things and bring them to the city.

My family was not very rich, but at least they were working. My mother was a nurse. I used to go to the hospital to see her. I used to see sick people, that's why I like this field. I saw, in my country, people in the hospital who couldn't take care of themselves and needed someone to help them. When I was in high school I used to go to my mother to help her out in the hospital, take people to the bathroom, all those things.

Migration

I didn't come straight from Liberia to the US. When the civil war came, my father used to work in the government, so he had to run away. We went to Ghana. Then I came here with my father. My grandmother and great-aunt were here, then they sent for my father, and I came over with him.

California was where my auntie lived. That's where I have family. When I came there, I was 18, 19. My first job was in a fast food restaurant called Kwik Way, in Oakland, California. I used to work there and then saved a little bit of money.

I had a cousin who was already a CNA. She encouraged me to go to the CNA classes. She made me understand that it would involve helping people in the hospital. "Oh yeah, I would like to do that!" So I went to the CNA classes and paid for them.

To Rhode Island

My husband was here first, in 2001. He came directly to Rhode Island, because his brother that did the paperwork for the migration lived in Rhode Island.

We were married here. We knew each other from Liberia, as teenagers, growing up; we had a relationship. I moved to Rhode Island to my boyfriend to get married. Now I have a daughter and a step-son. He is 17 and my daughter is 7.

Working as a CNA

My first job in Rhode Island was at a nursing home. I worked for Oakland Grove Health Care Center. It was far, and at the time my little boy's day care was right around here, so it was more convenient working here (Pawtucket Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation). I started working here in the evening in 2005. When I started (Local) 1199 was already here.

You have your assignment of maybe nine or ten people that you have to care for in your eight hours. You're responsible for feeding, bathing, dressing, bath, everything, transferring in and out of bed for that eight hours. We used to rotate the assignment weekly, every week. When Genesee Health Care took over, they made it permanent assignment, so you work in the same unit as long as you are here.

It is good for the residents because they get used to you. They get less confused when they are used to you. You become more like family to them, because they have it in their mind that "Oh, this morning Magdeline is going to come and take care of me." It reaches a point where I have some residents that, when I have a day off, or I am sick, they still want their Magdeline to come and take care of them.

We have some residents that are completely dependent on us to do everything. Some cannot even take a spoon to feed themselves, maybe from a car accident or some sickness. For some you do the bathing and washing, but they feed themselves. You encourage them, work with them on therapy, and they improve gradually. You have some that are confused. You have to be there to keep reminding them about what to do. Everybody is not necessarily elderly.

Some walk around, but you have to keep an eye on them before they go astray or fall down, or do what they aren't supposed to do or go where they aren't supposed to go there.

Our facility is a "non-lifting" facility, but the job we do will affect your back. I suffer from lower back pain most of the time. That's our job description. Some people cannot move, and you have to dress them. Do you know what it is like when someone is lying in bed, and you have to put on their pants, their shirt, or dresses? Everything takes a lot of strength, it is very physical.

We care for these people. You take them as a family. For eight hours we give them our all, our everything to them, to make them comfortable. We understand that they were people before they became retired, like you or I, that worked, that had a life and family before they came here. Who knows, we might be one of them tomorrow, and we would like people to care for us the way we are doing for them.

Union life

(A union) was a new idea to me. I buy the idea. I like it!

I came to understand that because where I used to work, the first nursing home I worked at, never had a union. Then you could see the way people behaved there. Maybe a nurse would not like a CNA, they can't stand you, and they lie about you, they fire you just like that. Maybe a nurse would go tell the director of nurses and their bosses. It is like the nurses are in charge on the floor. I've seen nurses say something about a CNA and then maybe they just fire you, or maybe a patient will say something about a CNA, and they just fire you.

What I came to understand about the union is that they will investigate, they will come in, they will want to know every detail about what's going on. Talk to the staff. I love that. Nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes, but sometimes it is good to hear the side of the other person too. I understand that they might believe the resident or the charge nurse, but equally so you have to hear from the CNA too. What really happened? The union comes in and does all that.

Fight for $15

For this (Fight for) $15 we're doing: if there was no union we wouldn't be doing it. Nobody would hear us.

I am into it 100%. I went for the rally. Channel 6 was there, I spoke to them. I went to the State House. I went to the programs they had at the union office. I'm for it all the way until we have $15. We deserve it. I'm going to fight for it.

We deserve something better, because we have family, rent to pay, car loans, car insurance, groceries, day care, all those things. And then we get paid $11 or $12? Come on. At the end of the day after taxes and what have you, you're carrying $200 or $250 home. What is that going to do for you when you have an apartment that you have to pay $900 for? And you have gas bills to pay, electric to pay, other things to take care of.

This is why we want at least starting at $15. As time goes by even as they give you a $.10, $.25 cent raise it will help. When you're making that $12, you can't handle your responsibilities at home. You're shopping and carrying your children places to have fun, Chuck E. Cheese and all of that, you don't have the extra cash.

You're going to go for another job, because with kids, they will want nice sneakers, nice clothing, at the end of the day you have to go for a second job. But when you go for that second job, because you have kids, you have family, who is going to take care of them? I have a seven year old daughter. I drive her to school, and I come to work. After work I have to pick her up and take care of her. Take her to the playground like every other child, and do all that. And then put them to bed, read a bedtime story, do homework, the usual things a mom can do. If I'm doing two jobs, who is going to do all that for her? She will be going from one day care to another day care.

A lot of my co-workers do two jobs. I tried, but I couldn't. I went for orientation in a second nursing home for one or two days, I couldn't do it. It was just hard.

We need our nursing home workers to start at $15/hour, at least. I think fast food workers start at $9 or $10 an hour. When fast food is at $9 or $10 and nursing is at $11, you know what we're going to be doing? We're going to flip burgers instead of doing all this. Flipping burgers or washing dishes is not comparable to what I do. I'm not saying that they aren't doing a good job, we appreciate it because we get our burgers and get going on our day. Even so, we deal with people, physical work, dealing with family and loved ones. We need $15, at least.