Benzor Shem Vidal started caring for his nonverbal autistic brother when he was 12. Vidal’s parents, who lived with the two boys in a small house in steamy Cebu City in the Philippines, didn’t have the money to send his brother to special-education classes, so when Vidal came home from school each day, he would find his brother mumbling to himself in the living room. Vidal would prepare him some food, making sure that he drank water between bites so he wouldn’t choke. Vidal went to nursing school and graduated second in his class, perhaps because he already had a decade of informal experience. When his mother died in 2020, Vidal’s father became his brother’s sole caretaker, leaving Vidal to be the wage-earner for the family. He needed to make more money. So last year, at 26, Vidal moved to America to work at a nursing home in Brooklyn.
According to Vidal, Advanced Care Staffing (A.C.S.), the staffing agency that hired him, promised he would be responsible for 20 to 30 patients, but the reality was more than 40, leading to a dangerous and unmanageable workload. On two occasions, he was the only nurse on his floor, responsible for upward of 80 patients. Some days he would wheel an oxygen tank into the room of a patient who was struggling for breath and begin administering lifesaving oxygen, only to hear another patient screaming in pain and drilling the call button. “I’m just by myself,” he said to me, trying to explain his feeling of helplessness at the time. “I cannot split myself.” Vidal was so busy he rarely had 10 minutes to rush to the kitchen to microwave his lunch. He was terrified that someone would get hurt and he would lose his nursing license, probably the most valuable thing he possessed. He started to get headaches — to feel sick and exhausted all the time. Fourteen weeks after starting the job, he told A.C.S. he wanted to quit.