Facing national home care crisis, attacking caregivers is a move backward

I was studying to be a surgical technologist in 2010 when I received some bad news. My mother was sick, and needed to receive bypass surgery in both her legs. After that day, her life — and mine —would never be the same. She could no longer live alone, so I dropped out of school to become her full-time home care worker.

I’m now paid $13 an hour. I do not have paid sick leave or a retirement plan, and I am only allowed to bill for 29 hours a week. Of course, caring for my mother is an around-the-clock job — so I often work unpaid and take additional jobs in child care to make ends meet. 

As our population ages, home care work — caring for seniors and people with disabilities — has rapidly become the most in-demand, fastest-growing occupation in the country. Yet home care workers, the majority of whom are women of color like me, live in poverty. Our national average wage is just $10.49 per hour, half of us are on public assistance, and we rarely receive even the most basic of benefits, like paid sick time. As a result — even while an estimated 34 million families will need home care providers by 2040— there are mass shortages of home care providers. 

What will it take to solve the crisis in care? Getting more people to join and stay in this profession. My fellow workers and I organized our union with SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana for a pathway out of poverty — in the hope that, through collective bargaining, we could finally earn a living wage and attract more home care workers. And in the past few years, slowly but surely, workers across the country have made hard-fought gains, even winning a path to $15 an hour in Massachusetts, Oregon and Los Angeles. Yet, over the past year, our freedom to join together has been subjected to a wave of attacks by Republicans and right-wing special interests.

Just last week, for example, Michael Reitz published a op-ed in The Hill arguing that our unions coerced workers into paying dues and “siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars [from Medicaid] intended for disabled adults.” A few weeks before that, syndicated columnist George Will argued that home care workers were “unsophisticated.”

These attacks are more than condescending lies — they’re a slap in the face to our years of organizing led primarily by women of color. Just to set the record straight: I choose to pay my union dues out of my own paycheck, just like other union public sector employees, including teachers and police officers.

I am “sophisticated” enough to decide to do whatever I want with the money I earn — whether it be donating to charity or supporting organizations that want to create more sustainable jobs and ensure access to affordable healthcare.

I don’t think these attacks are motivated by concerns around taxpayer funds. They’re aimed at deliberately stripping away the rights of working people and the collective strength we have to address deep economic injustices in our country.

In the past year, much has been made about the political force of women, particularly black women. Yet when we try to capitalize on that power, we are relentlessly attacked. Last year, for example, our Illinois union negotiated a small pay raise of $0.48 an hour in the state budget — but Gov. Bruce Rauner has refused to implement it. At the federal level, corporate-backed interests and billionaires are pushing a Supreme Court case that is a blatant attempt to silence our voices.

Policymakers should be working to strengthen and expand worker organizations, not undermine them. Home care workers in unions have not only won improvements for workers; they have improved the quality of care received by millions of seniors and people with disabilities. In the past year, thousands of home care workers protested and rallied to protect Medicaid funding from Republican-backed cuts. In Virginia, union home care workers saved the Consumer-Directed Home Care program from budget cuts. Union-backed home care training programs in California have been proven to keep consumers healthy in their homes and out of emergency rooms.

The fight for our rights and freedom to come together in our unions isn’t just about responsible caregiving — it is a moral issue. Workers like me have devoted our entire lives to caring for society’s most vulnerable citizens. Policymakers should respect our basic right to organize and fight for a better life.

Melody Benjamin is a union home care worker in Chicago.

Tags benefits Health care Home care Melody Benjamin Minimum wage Unions

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