Home caregivers deserve overtime pay – and dignity

Maria Lopez of Los Angeles pushes her mother Ema Lopez as they are arrested at the State Capitol during a 2012 protest by In-Home Supportive Services workers and clients.
Maria Lopez of Los Angeles pushes her mother Ema Lopez as they are arrested at the State Capitol during a 2012 protest by In-Home Supportive Services workers and clients. Sacramento Bee file

There are 400,000 reasons for Gov. Jerry Brown to make home caregivers eligible for overtime pay – the workers across California being denied basic rights.

His administration’s recent decision to deny overtime pay to In-Home Supportive Services caregivers is in direct contrast with the spirit of a law that our Legislature approved and he signed.

It is an affront to workers like me. Money has been so tight that I’ve had to make a decision no mother wants to face. My son, Jacob, did not get any Christmas or birthday presents this past year.

Jacob is 38 years old and was born with a brain-stem defect. He cannot get around on his own, can only communicate through eye contact and body language and requires around-the-clock care. He does not know holidays from any other day of the year and doesn’t know any differently whether he receives gifts or not.

But I know. And it breaks my heart.

I have been Jacob’s paid care provider since 1996, when he turned 20 and was no longer eligible for public school programs. When I learned of IHSS, I was overwhelmed to think that the government actually recognized me as a person who was doing a job that went above and beyond typical parenting. This program allows me to actually save the government a great deal of money because I can do it better than anyone else, including a full staff of strangers in a high-priced facility.

The annual cost to place someone in a skilled nursing facility is more than $65,000, while the annual cost for someone with an average number of IHSS hours is closer to $13,000, according to a 2012-13 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

I do this job because he is my son and I love him. It is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination, and obviously I am not doing it for the money. For this physically and emotionally exhausting work, I currently earn $9 an hour, with no retirement benefits, no health care and no sick days.

I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, was counting on finally being eligible for overtime like other workers when U.S. Department of Labor regulations and a California law were supposed to go into effect Jan. 1.

Although a federal judge sided with for-profit home-care agencies and stopped the new Labor Department rules from going into effect, there is nothing in the court ruling that prohibits the state from moving forward. What’s more, funds to pay overtime wages for caregivers who are part of IHSS are already built into the budget.

Without overtime pay, the difficult and meaningful work we do is being minimized and we are not receiving the dignity we deserve. Failing to pay overtime to home-care workers disproportionately affects women, as well as minorities.

I feel let down, and I am not alone. Home caregivers are feeling like second-class citizens, rather than the hard-working members of our communities that we truly are.

I was planning to use my overtime pay to provide more nutrition to Jacob’s diet and to the rest of my family. I also hoped to start saving money toward more reliable transportation for Jacob. By autumn, I would be able to get a birthday gift for Jacob after so many years of not being able to.

I am joining my fellow IHSS workers in asking Gov. Brown to keep his promise of equality for caregivers. We have held daily vigils in front of his office at the Capitol, and we have wage-theft claims with the state Department of Industrial Relations.

We will not stop there. We will continue to stand up for our rights.

Roxanne Bender is an IHSS caregiver in El Dorado County.