Fast Food workers are welcoming a new and compelling partner to the Fight for $15. Today, hundreds of home care workers joined thousands of striking workers, elected officials and supporters in the streets of five cities, adding their voices to the call to hike wages.
Home care workers, an overwhelmingly female workforce that provides critical in-home support to the elderly and people with disabilities, are natural allies to the campaign. Like the fast food industry, home care is growing at a rapid rate but remains marred by poverty-level wages. In fact, the two official occupations that make up the home care workforce – personal care aides and home health aides – are projected to be the fastest and second fastest-growing occupations in the next decade respectively, adding an anticipated one million new jobs by 2022.Yet the median wage is stuck at $9.38 per hour and, like fast food and other low-wage workers, home care workers often don’t even get the wages due to them. An increasing slice of the American workforce, many of them parents, will soon find that the only available jobs are ones like these, with little promise of upward mobility, dependable hours or a family-supporting salary.
Unsurprisingly, corporate heads in both fast food and home care complain that there just isn’t enough money to pay workers more, and hide behind franchisees or use independent contractor schemes to evade responsibility for the workers. Yet the data makes clear that employers are thriving on the backs of workers and can afford to pay more. Fast food is a $200 billion dollar industry. Revenues for the home care industry have grown steadily even during the Great Recession (on average, by 20% from 2001-2010 for the industry serving the elderly and people with disabilities and by 9% annually for the home care industry from 2001-2009). For-profit home care chains have exploded, with an annual 9.4% growth in locations and 11.6% growth in corporate revenues from 2007 to 2009.We all suffer the consequences of these shocking disparities between worker pay and corporate profits. Taxpayers subsidize corporations when we foot the bill for food stamps and other basic needs to ensure workers don’t go hungry. Communities suffer when workers cannot afford to buy groceries at their local supermarket, or when they miss rent payments. And workers’ children bear the heaviest burden, missing out on the essentials no kid should have to do without, like having a parent who can take a day off to care for them when they are sick, and safe and dependable child care – especially troubling problems for the 20% of home care workers who are single mothers.
Home care workers make a particularly compelling case for a new standard because the industry is already plagued by alarmingly high turnover and burnout, jeopardizing care for society’s most vulnerable members and straining the home care system just as more and more Americans come to rely on its services. Stabilizing the home care system through higher wages and better conditions is not only fair; it also preserves public funds by keeping people in their homes and out of more-costly institutional care, and by easing worker reliance on public benefits, namely Medicaid – ironically, the very same program that funds most home care services in the first place.
While the $15 goal may seem like a long shot for home care workers, especially given a recent Supreme Court decision diluting the power of some home care worker unions, the Fight for 15 has drastically raised expectations for what workers can achieve and inspired so many to join the fight. Since fast food workers took to the streets in New York City in 2012, Seattle has passed a $15 per hour minimum wage. School workers in Los Angeles and hospital workers in Baltimore also won a $15 wage rate.And home care workers themselves have taken tremendous if halting steps toward better job standards recently. After years of advocacy, most home care workers will be covered by federal minimum wage and overtime rights for the first time in four decades, thanks to a Department of Labor rules change slated to go into effect on January 1, 2015.
Workers employed in publicly-funded programs have successfully made the case in some states and cities that public dollars should fund decent jobs that attract and retain skilled workers. Medicaid-funded home care workers in New York now receive $14 per hour in wages and benefits, a reform that stems the tremendous financial and human cost of recruiting and retraining what has been a constantly churning workforce, and eases workers’ reliance on public benefits. And 27,000 home care workers in Minnesota just voted to organize with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) despite repeated threats by the Right to Work Foundation to challenge their and other unions.
No one disputes that home care workers are essential – to the people for whom they care, to families, and to the economy – but they are all too often treated as if they were dispensable. Home care workers are not waiting any longer for policy makers to recognize this basic fact. They are taking to the streets to insist that they, too, get the fair wages they deserve.
Sarah Leberstein is a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.