Coming off a month of historic worker walkouts, Congress is debating a set of budget packages that, depending on how cynical you are, could represent the last major federal investments in working people for another two years.
Part of what’s on the table is an enormously popular federal investment in our caregiving system, which would bring transformative change for care workers—who are 87 percent women and more than 60 percent people of color—and the seniors and folks with disabilities they care for. But the window of opportunity to make that change a reality is quickly slipping away.
Investing in care is a racial and gender justice imperative. Last summer, everyone from CEOs to political candidates to celebrities came out of the woodwork to declare that Black Lives Matter. We need that same energy for the Black home care workers who risked their health and safety throughout the pandemic to make sure their clients’ needs were met, all while being paid poverty wages and denied the right to join a union.
Make no mistake: if Congress invests only in male-dominated jobs and fails to strike a deal to invest in the women of color who kept our country running over the last year and a half, they cannot claim to have fought for an equitable recovery.
Yes, this investment is about putting Black women at the center of our nation’s path forward. But it’s also a commonsense solution to a problem that will affect every single one of us. It’s impossible to overstate the growing crisis of care in this country. Approximately 20 million of us currently require long-term care, and the number is growing every day. By 2028, we’ll need to fill 4.7 million new care jobs as 10,000 people turn 65 daily, the majority of whom would prefer to age at home. More than 800,000 seniors and people with disabilities are currently stuck on home care waitlists, some dying before ever receiving care.
We’re in this situation in no small part because home care workers have been systemically denied the respect, pay and protection they need and deserve. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established minimum wage, overtime pay, and other basic standards, only passed as a result of a compromise struck to garner the support of segregationists. The compromise? Carving out domestic and farm workers (jobs that, in the years after emancipation, were coded as jobs for Black folks in Southern states) from the laws that allowed workers to come together in unions, earn a minimum wage and more. Some of these carveouts persist to this day. In recent years, home care workers have joined together to speak with one voice, and in many states, like California, they’ve won historic victories. But home care workers in every state and every zip code urgently need the same protections.
We cannot claim to be making strides in racial and gender justice without drilling down to historic, systemic inequities and addressing them head-on. And we cannot get people the care they need if we do not invest in care jobs that provide economic security, pathways to careers, and the chance to join a union to bargain for better wages.
Home care workers are lifelines. But they are not martyrs. This largely women of color workforce that cares for our nation has been organizing for decades to demand living wages, good benefits, and a union to advocate for better standards. They understand innately that good jobs build strong communities.
It’s because of care workers’ relentless organizing that the Biden-Harris administration proposed urgently needed investments in our care system as part of the build back better package. It’s a testament to the foundational nature of care that this proposal has survived rounds of scaling back the package and remains overwhelmingly popular across party lines. Now it’s on Congress to deliver on their promises.
If Congress cannot pass this investment, workers and families will remember. Millions of essential care workers and voters of color turned out in record numbers in 2018, 2020, and 2021 to deliver the White House and both houses of Congress to Democrats. Many of these voters overcame their understandable skepticism of politics, of both political parties, and the risks associated with a deadly pandemic to participate in elections. We can’t expect voters to remain motivated to keep showing up if the leaders they voted for don’t deliver results.
There is no good scenario, no justice for care workers, no relief for families, until Congress steps up to the plate and passes this plan in full. We cannot wait any longer to invest in our nation’s care system and the women who power it.
April Verrett, president of SEIU 2015, the nation's largest home care union.