Kim White is a CNA at a Florida nursing home, where she works back-to-back 16 hour shifts each weekend. A single mother, raising a 14-year-old son, she finds the weekend shift works well for her as a parent.

Before becoming a CNA, Kim received her degree in criminal justice and worked as a correctional officer. When she decided to pursue a different career in healthcare, her friend encouraged her to find work as a CNA.

Unlike many nursing assistants, Kim has worked for the same employer for the past five years. A member of SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East, Kim recently fought with her fellow nursing home workers for higher wages that would allow them  to provide the basics for their own families while they care for others. Their new contract will increase the minimum wage from $8.05 to $10.40 and put a large percentage of care workers on a path to earning a living wage of $15 an hour.

What type of training did you have to become a CNA?

Kim: I went to a fast-track training program for two weeks. The training was informative and covered all the state regulations you need to know to care for older people. To get your certificate you had to take a state exam, which included a written test and a part where you demonstrated skills. But book work and school work in this field are not enough.

We are trained to provide basic care for elderly people, but we’re seeing more people with mental health issues, memory issues, or other complex illnesses. The once-a-year training we get on dementia care isn’t hands-on and not enough to provide the best care. We all need to be prepared if the dementia unit is full and a resident with late-stage dementia ends up on our floor.

Can you talk about the care you provide your residents? What is most important about the work you do?  

Kim: We help our residents with all activities of daily living, anything they need to do to survive that day. We get them out of bed, get them bathed or showered, provide oral care, get them dressed, comb their hair, assist them with meals.

But the most important thing we do is provide residents in our care with hope. Some have no family. We are the first person they see in the morning and the last person before they go to bed. That is invaluable. They know, someone is there, someone cares, and tomorrow will be better than today.

Do you work as part of a team?  

Most of the time we are understaffed. We each have 12 residents and we are so focused on their needs that there isn’t time to think about helping someone else. Having more staff available would allow us to spend more time on team building. That would not only create a more friendly work environment, it would help to improve care.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your career?

Understaffing is our biggest challenge. And a lack of staff appreciation. Understaffing is important because it relates to safety. Without sufficient staffing, more residents and workers are injured. Across Florida, CNAs work short staffed so often that they are used to it. It is just the way it is.

What makes you come to work each day? What are the rewards?

One of the residents is a man who has been with us for a long time. He is like a breath of fresh air. He always has a smile. His memory is not good, but whether he knows you or not, he always gives you a smile. He has no family, and only one visitor each week, but no matter what he is going through, he gives you a smile. And that smile keeps me going. When I think about my own struggles, I think of him and I’m reminded that there are always people who have it harder than you, but spreading joy to others, no matter your circumstances, is a blessing.

Would you like to see changes in your job or the way we care for older people?

I think the most important change would be the need for improved wages for nursing home workers. State and nursing home payment policies should ensure that facilities pay a wage that people can live on. Because when work pays well, your attitude is better, you do better work, and people get better care. It starts from the top.