Mary Kay Henry: Low wages keep home care workers boxed into a life of tough choices
On April 15, some of these women will hold strikes, protests to call for higher wages
Editor’s Note: Mary Kay Henry is international president of the Service Employees International Union. The views expressed are her own.
Over the next decade, a million women – most likely black or Latina, almost certainly living in poverty – will become home care workers. And on April 15, some of these women will take part in the largest mobilization of underpaid workers this country has ever seen, to call for wages that will allow them to finally support themselves and their families.
These women make up 91% of the home care workforce but will be paid next to nothing, with median earnings of just $13,000 a year. They may not be entitled to overtime pay. And most of them won’t get paid time off, and so will have to choose between putting gas in the car to get to work and putting food on the table for their kids.
A report by the National Employment Law Project says that if America’s 2 million home care workers were paid $15 an hour, it would put $16.5 billion in their pockets, add up to $6.6 billion to the U.S. economy and create as many as 50,000 jobs.
In the meantime, though, half of all home care workers receive public assistance, while one-fourth live in households with incomes that fall below the federal poverty line.
The reality is that low wages keep these hardworking women and their children boxed into a life with too many tough choices and not enough opportunity. That is why home care workers are taking action on Wednesday, with a nationwide series of strikes and protests for higher wages and union rights that are, at heart, a call to end the cycle of grinding poverty for millions of people in this country.
In calling for higher wages and a voice on the job in fast food, home care and retail, women are changing the very shape of the work they do. Home care workers have spent decades organizing for better pay, a stronger home care system and recognition of care services as real work. The fight for higher wages is a fight to rise above poverty, to provide for their families and to give back to their communities.
It’s a fight for workers like Kimberly Weems of Atlanta, who has worked in home care for 14 years, but is paid just $8.50 an hour, which is nowhere near enough to provide for her granddaughter, who was born with a disability.
And for Liliana Cordero, who is raising three kids outside of Chicago. As the sole breadwinner in her family, Liliana finds herself going to work sick, missing her children’s important school events, and working more than 50 hours a week for half a dozen home care clients to keep the lights on.
Home care provider Sumer Spika, meanwhile, only took a week off after the birth of her son last year. The St. Paul, Minnesota, mom simply couldn’t afford any more time away from work. She wasn’t able to take time off when her daughter was in the hospital, either.
Kimberly, Liliana and Sumer are not alone. In the report, “Paying the Price: How Poverty Wages Undermine Home Care in America,” the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute lays out the stark reality of the future of home care: 10,000 people in this country turn 65 every day and the growing demand for home care, coupled with the terrible conditions for home care workers, is at the center of the “Care Crisis.”
Raising wages to $15 an hour would allow home care workers to raise their families with dignity while caring for others. When the workers win, it will improve the lives of families, build stronger communities and lift the entire economy.