Soapbox

Home health care workers need living wage

More than 4,000 home care providers and clients rallied at the state Capitol in June 2014. Their union is pushing for higher wages.
More than 4,000 home care providers and clients rallied at the state Capitol in June 2014. Their union is pushing for higher wages. Sacramento Bee file

Home health care worker Millie Martinez has a passion for her work, but she’s also a single mom and her passion unfortunately doesn’t pay the bills.

She has spent the last decade caring for a man who is like a grandfather to her, helping him get to his doctors’ appointments, ensuring that he takes his medication, keeping his surroundings safe and preparing meals based on a recommended diet. She has to work six or seven days a week at minimum wage to make enough money to care for her children, and her job can be back-breaking, messy and difficult. Caregivers like her struggle daily, taking care of our most vulnerable without being paid a livable wage.

With 44.7 million Americans older than 65 and 10,000 baby boomers hitting that milestone every day, the number of people requiring care only continues to grow. Yet because long-term care workers are paid an average of $17,000 a year, there aren’t enough caregivers in any state.

The gap will keep growing. About 19 million seniors – living in their own home as well as assisted living facilities and similar settings where they are largely on their own – need daily care. However, only about 2 million are in the workforce available to care for these seniors. There simply aren’t enough individuals willing and able to work in this field at the current wages offered.

Long-term care workers face unique challenges negotiating for better pay and benefits; collective bargaining gives them a voice in California. About 400,000 workers are seeking contracts to lift them out of poverty and put them on a path to earning $15 an hour.

This fight includes Los Angeles, where the recent minimum-wage increase excludes more than 130,000 Los Angeles County home care workers who are in the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program. It also stretches to Fresno, where home care workers haven’t had a wage hike in six years, to Sonoma County where the Board of Supervisors voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour but specifically excluded home care workers.

Most days, we are inundated with news about the impending crisis of how to care for baby boomers as they age. Many will have Alzheimer’s disease and many haven’t adequately saved for retirement.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged, but the home care gap is fixable.

If we raise wages, not only will workers be able to continue to stay in this important field, but more will be willing to join this difficult but rewarding workforce. By paying our care workers a livable wage, they will no longer need to worry about putting food on the table or paying their rent. Instead, they can commit to caring for our old and vulnerable.

Laphonza Butler is provisional president of SEIU Local 2015, which represents California’s long-term care workers. She can be contacted at Laphonza.Butler@seiu2015.org.

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