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Home health workers push for higher wages

Home health workers are joining the fight for higher wages with events in 21 cities across the country.
Sun Benjamin, a home health care worker, second right, walks with other protesters on a day-long march in support of low-wage workers on Dec. 5, 2013, in SeaTac, Wash.
Sun Benjamin, a home health care worker, second right, walks with other protesters on a day-long march in support of low-wage workers on Dec. 5, 2013, in SeaTac, Wash.

Home health workers are making a new push for higher wages in 21 cities across the country. 

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is leading the effort, says that it’s the first national campaign to organize home health workers, who care for the elderly and disabled in their own homes.

“Even though we’re working, and working hard and we enjoy what we do, we’re just not being compensated appropriately,” says Kimberly Thomas, a 50-year-old home health worker who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Thomas gets paid $10 an hour, without overtime, and says it’s not enough economic security.

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“I don’t have a way to pay for my retirement — making this kind of money doesn’t afford us the flexibility we need,” says Thomas, who’s joined the SEIU’s push for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. 

The new campaign, which began on Monday, will include town halls, rallies, and other events in major cities including Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Memphis, and St. Louis. 

“This is one of the most important jobs in our country, caring for older Americans and persons with disabilities so that they can live at home in their communities,” says Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat. “As we turn to home care workers to help our families, we must make sure that they earn enough to provide for their own families.”

Nationally, there are about 2 million home health care workers, who make a median wage of about $10.01 per hour, according to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, which advocates on behalf of the workers. Nearly 60% work either part-time or only work full time for a portion of the year, and about 48% live in households with incomes below the poverty line.

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Home health agencies argue that their financial resources are constrained, and that higher wages would force them to cut back hours and force the elderly into institutional care. Three-quarters of home care services are paid for by Medicaid, Medicare, or other public programs.

The new campaign is an extension of the “Fight for $15,” a national protest effort that initially focused on organizing fast-food workers. “Home care workers can't wait any longer for decent pay and respect on the job, which is why the movement for $15 an hour and union rights has inspired workers across sectors nationwide to join together,” said SEIU president Mary Kay Henry.

It’s also happening amid a big federal fight over labor protections for home care workers. In 2013, the Obama administration proposed new regulations that would ensure they were subject to minimum wage protections and overtime rules, from which home care workers have been exempted. 

But a federal court struck down the new rules last month, which the Obama administration has since appealed.

The White House is still trying to show solidarity with the home care workers: Labor Secretary Tom Perez is scheduled to speak at a Washington D.C.-based event that’s part of the SEIU’s new campaign.