The Hunger Strike to End 24-Hour Shifts

This article was originally published in New York Magazine. Read it here.

Every week for more than a year, Nu Jun Zhu worked four 24-hour shifts as a home-care attendant. Though she was only paid for 13 hours each shift, she says she worked virtually every minute taking care of frail patients, leaving her no time to sleep. “It’s very exhausting,” she told me through a translator. It was common for patients to get up every 20 minutes or so to have to be carried from bed to the bathroom to be washed by hand. She shows photos of her arm and leg that were bruised when she tried to prevent a patient from falling. Her fingers are misshapen from years of such work.

As her health deteriorated, she asked the agency that employed her if another worker could take care of her patient; instead, she said, they told her to continue her work. In addition to her physical pain, she suffered emotional distress because she had to leave her husband and children for days in a row. She showed me the bag of medication that she must take after years on the job.

On Wednesday, she joined other current and retired home-care workers in front of City Hall for a rally and then a hunger strike to demand an end to 24-hour shifts in the city. Organized by the Ain’t I a Woman?! campaign alongside groups like the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, the hunger strike is designed to pressure Speaker Adrienne Adams to bring a bill to a vote. The bill would split the 24-hour block into 12-hour shifts provided by two workers, and supporters say it’s based on similar legislation previously passed by the council. People who need 24-hour care would still receive it, said Councilmember Christopher Marte, who introduced the bill. “But it wouldn’t be on the backs of these women working 24 hours days on end,” he told me.

Under a current interpretation of state law, workers are only paid for up to 13 hours of their 24-hour shift. They are often unable to rest or take meal breaks, and Zhu compared the situation to slavery. “Adrienne Adams, have a conscience,” she said, telling me that she plans to get through her hunger strike by drinking water. “I am not afraid,” she adds. “As long as we are united, we have the power.”

Zhu and her fellow hunger-strikers belong to a campaign that began in the 1990s, organizers told me ahead of Wednesday’s rally. At the time, garment workers who were mostly women of color were fighting for shorter hours and better conditions on the job. Later, as the garment industry diminished in the city, many began to shift into home-care work. Ain’t I a Woman?! has been working primarily with home-care workers for the past ten years, and they’ve protested repeatedly — and publicly — for an end to the brutal 24-hour shift. Former garment workers who raised the alarm over the shifts feared for their health, explained Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the campaign. She said many stated that even if they were paid for every hour of their shift, they would still choose not to work for 24 hours. The physical damage, and the emotional toll it inflicts, are too much to bear.

A hunger strike is a drastic action. Most of the workers in front of City Hall are older women of color, and they’re putting their health on the line again after years of difficult work. They feel they have no other choice. After Candy Song worked 11 consecutive days during the height of the pandemic, she became exhausted and suffered an injury on the job. She’s now retired because of her injury, but she has joined the hunger strike and addressed Adams directly: “Abolish the 24-hour workdays, immediately.”

Carmela Huang, an attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice who has represented home-care workers since 2015, said there is a solution if there is the “will” to implement it. “Part of the reason why there has been no will is because we’re talking about workers who are overwhelmingly women of color and immigrants, and then we’re talking about consumers who are elderly, disabled, and poor,” she added. “They’re just two populations that our society tends not to care very much about.”

In a press conference this week, Adams said she “absolutely” supports workers, but that the city has no control over state Department of Labor regulations or Medicaid reimbursement rates. “So the solution to address the 24-hour home care has to occur at the state level,” she said. She has introduced a resolution urging the State Legislature to act (efforts to end the shifts have repeatedly stalled in Albany). On Wednesday, Marte told me that he disagrees with the Speaker. He believes that his bill has the votes to pass, and said the city has the legal authority to end 24-hour shifts. “Tell us what part of this bill is illegal,” he said, adding that the bill had been legally vetted before he introduced it. “It’s definitely within the confines of the city.”

1199 SEIU, a powerful union that represents many home-care workers, has estimated that ending the 24-hour shifts could cost an additional $645 million per year in the city alone. New York’s Medicaid program would pay the cost, with the state paying approximately half and the federal government kicking in the rest. The union had opposed a previous version of Marte’s bill but dropped its opposition this year after the removal of a provision that capped the home-care workweek at 50 hours. (In its current form, the bill caps the workweek at 56 hours. Employers can exceed that provided they follow certain procedures, like obtaining written consent from the worker.) Supporters of the 50-hour cap said at the time that it was necessary because employers often pressure workers into taking overtime; Helen Schaub, a political director for the union, told me the union opposed it because it restricted workers from earning “time-and-a-half overtime, which in our view was not correct.” Workers should be paid for each hour of their 24-hour shift, she added.

Wednesday’s hunger-strikers weren’t persuaded by Adams’s belief that it’s the state’s responsibility to act. Zishun Ning, another organizer with Ain’t I a Woman?!, said the city wants “to see women of color as the cheapest to be exploited,” and continues to “step on the women of color who are seen as the weakest.”

“But now with hundreds, even thousands of home attendants rising up, it shows that the weakest can actually take the lead in fighting to change the society and these very inhumane working conditions,” he added.

As the first day of the hunger strike drew to a close, home-care workers settled into chairs on the sidewalk under the lengthening shadow of City Hall. They plan to go without food for around a week, and volunteers will look after them until the strike is over. “I’m almost 70 years old,” said Lai Yee Chan, who added that she is still fighting. “They exploit and oppress us, forcing us to do these 24-hour workdays. Our hope is to let the whole world know that Adrienne Adams, despite being a woman, still maintains the violence against us.” While city and state officials argue over who has the authority to end the shifts, workers wait.

This piece has been updated to clarify the language of the current bill.