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CNA Profiled in Upcoming HBO Documentary

March 6, 2014

Katrina Gilbert, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is one of 42 million women in the U.S. living near or below the poverty level. An HBO documentary about Gilbert, entitled Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert, shows in heartbreaking detail the sacrifices she has to make every day to make ends meet.

In the film, Gilbert says she has to work long hours — double shifts, weekends, and holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Despite having health issues, including a serious thyroid condition, Gilbert has to put less-essential medicines back on the shelf when a trip to the pharmacist results in a $400 bill. And despite the protests of her three young children — Brooklynn, 7; Lydia, 5; and Trent, 3 — Gilbert is forced to give away their beloved family dog due to financial reasons.

“When I went to CNA school, I thought the pay would be much higher than it was,” she told PHI recently. Coming off a separation from her husband, the 30-year-old Gilbert looked for a job for eight months to help her get back on her feet before realizing that were “a ton of CNA jobs” available in her area. She earned her CNA certification on her first try and found work, only to find that wages were much lower than the $13/hour she had been expecting. In Paycheck to Paycheck, Gilbert reveals that her hourly wage is just $9.49 an hour. By the end of the movie, which documents Gilbert’s life for a year, she receives a raise — of 13 cents an hour. (The median hourly wage for nursing assistants in Tennessee is $10.64 an hour.)

The documentary shows Gilbert on the job, doing the often-dangerous work of a CNA — lifting residents, transferring them into their bed, feeding them, consoling those with dementia.

“I think people think it’s an easy job, but it’s very physically demanding on your body,” she told PHI. (In the film, she said that she sometimes feels as though she’s twice her age.)

Her job offers health insurance, but she cannot afford to pay the premiums. “Literally I’d be making around six dollars an hour,” she said. Since the film finished shooting, however, she was able to obtain affordable insurance through Healthcare.gov.

Gilbert has also been helped by the Earned Income Tax Credit; a scene in Paycheck to Paycheck shows her meeting with an accountant who helps her secure a much needed refund. (Outside the accountant’s office, she says the refund will help her throw birthday parties for her children, which she hasn’t been able to do in years.) Gilbert also receives subsidized child care from Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center.

But despite the assistance, Gilbert says that she worries about money, and about her own physical and mental health. A CNA’s work can be “emotionally draining,” she said. “Some days are good, some days are bad. Sometimes I wonder, ‘How much longer can I do this?'”

Gilbert says that being a CNA can be deeply rewarding, and she’s formed close bonds with many of the people she cares for. But, she told PHI, for her children’s sake she is working toward getting a more secure job — maybe in marketing, maybe in graphic design. A job with regular hours and weekends and holidays off. A job that doesn’t force her to live paycheck to paycheck. “I hope [my children] don’t have to struggle this way,” she said. “I wish no one had to struggle this way.”

Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert, airs Monday, March 17, at 9:00 pm EST. It will also be available to watch for free on HBO.com, ShriverReport.org, and YouTube from March 17-24.


— by Matthew Ozga

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