Today we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. It has been almost a century since that historic occasion, and women have made enormous progress toward political and social equality. But when it comes to economic equity, many women still find it impossible to earn a decent living. We all know the stats—women still earn 77 cents on the dollar, when compared to their male counterparts.
Wage discrimination is particularly egregious among women in domestic caregiving occupations. Home care aides, for example, who provide critical support to elders and people with disabilities in their homes, are among the lowest paid workers in the country.
In recognition of the growing need for home care workers—and their value to our families and our nation’s health and aging systems—Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) worked alongside a home care worker today who provides in-home support to an 81-year-old Chicago resident.
Schakowsky, who recently participated in “Living the Wage,” an effort to live on the earnings of a minimum wage worker for one week, recognizes that the average wage for home care workers nationally—$9.61 an hour—is simply insufficient to live decently and raise a family today.
Like other low wage workers, home care aides often find it difficult to pay the rent and keep food on the table, no less pay for health coverage or childcare, or save for retirement.
How is it that one of the nation’s fastest-growing jobs (one million new home care jobs will be created between 2012 and 2022), pays so poorly? It certainly isn’t that the work lacks value—any family that has depended on a caregiver to assist an elderly relative or one living with a disability knows the peace of mind that comes with a skilled, compassionate home care aide.
The real reason for these abysmally low wages comes down to who does the work: the home care workforce is 89 percent female, and more than half are women of color. Nationally, one in four home care aides is an immigrant, though the number of foreign-born workers is much higher in cities (for example, 57 percent in New York City).
In today's Come Care with me Day, Schakowsky is shadowing a home care worker, an immigrant who cares for another immigrant who is 81 years old. The aide helps her client with bathing, dressing, meal preparation, and mobilty. Her caregiving makes it possible for her client to live with dignity in her own home. Cargiving also reduces the nation’s overall health care costs by keeping people out of the hospital or a nursing home.
Home care is vital, yet since its inception, the occupation has been presumed to be causal work that women by their nature are “good” at. That presumption is ludicrous today, when home care workers are expected to support people with complex chronic illnesses. A home care aide might have to suction a tracheotomy, clean an ostomy, treat skin sores, and communicate effectively with someone suffering from dementia.
Home care is a career that takes considerable knowledge and skill, as well as a great deal of compassion. When home care aides don’t receive adequate training —or wages necessary to support their families— they seek work elsewhere. Not surprisingly, about half the workforce turns over each year.
This turnover is unfortunate because it compromises care. It is also avoidable. The best home care is based on a quality, long-term relationship between the consumer and the caregiver. High turnover makes it nearly impossible for families to find the skilled, experienced, compassionate care they desire for their loved ones.
It’s time to raise the floor for home care workers. The Obama Administration has taken an important step toward recognizing the value of home care by extending this workforce basic labor protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act for the first time. Under the new rules, scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2015, home care aides are guaranteed the federal minimum wage, time and a half for overtime, and compensation for travel time between clients. This guaranteed wage floor is a sign of respect for workers who have long been marginalized and undervalued.
Yet, even this small reform is under attack. States are stalling—loathe to adequately pay caregivers who keep those in need out of institutions. States need to act now to ensure timely implementation of the rule, including allocating additional funding to Medicaid and other public programs that pay for home care services.
You can help raise the floor for home care aides by calling your governor’s office today and asking that the state move quickly to allocate sufficient funds to pay home care workers fair wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act. For more information, visit www.companionshipexemption.com.