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Justice for home care workers

George Gresham | 4/3/2014, 11:38 a.m.
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

This week, we observe the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was struck down while fighting for brutally exploited Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers. That fight was integral to King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Today, the fight against economic inequality has emerged as a central demand of justice advocates. For us at 1199SEIU, that means preserving and extending standards for our more than 100,000 members—some 75,000 in New York—in the home care industry. And the fate of these workers has broad implications for our health care system, the well-being of large sections of our aging population, women and the union movement.

Home care workers today face a major challenge as the health care industry embraces managed long-term care (MLTC), a system that streamlines the delivery of long-term services to people who are elderly or disabled and who wish to stay in their homes and communities.

The services are provided through MLTC plans that are approved by the New York State Department of Health. Our concern is that the providers, who will now be paid a flat rate for all the services the clients need, will seek to cut costs by reducing the already low compensation for the home care workers.

Our union has demanded that the New York Legislature continue to put in place sufficient policies to protect those workers against a race to the bottom in the new health care marketplace. Safeguards must be guaranteed to ensure that frontline caregivers have good jobs with health benefits and living wages, and that patients continue to be provided with a qualified, stable and healthy workforce.

To press this demand, more than 5,000 home care members and other 1199 members went to Albany on March 26. “My job is to make sure my clients are well cared for,” says Nolasca Vargas, an 1199SEIU home care worker employed by Family Care Certified Services in Brooklyn. “That means helping them eat, shower and [making] sure they take their meds. I make sure the house is tidy and the laundry is done. I love to do this, and I care a lot about the people I take care of. But I need to take care of myself too.”

Home care workers’ duties include not only cooking, cleaning and laundry, but also oftentimes changing bandages, monitoring medical equipment and administering medication. Their work is often physically demanding, e.g., lifting a client in and out of bed.

I’ve witnessed my mother’s aches and pains and sheer exhaustion in her posture and in her eyes as she prepared the family’s dinner after a hard day’s work as a home care worker.

She told me that her line of work often involved more than an exchange of services; home care workers build a relationship with the people in their care. Oftentimes, they are even closer than family members to their clients. And clients get to stay in their homes and communities, living safely and independently where they want to be.

We wonder if their treatment and status has anything to do with the fact that more than 90 percent of the nearly 2 million home health providers in the nation are women—and huge percentages are women of color and immigrants.

Besides the challenges posed by managed long-term care, home care workers face an even more ominous threat. The case of Harris v. Quinn, now before the Supreme Court, centers on a group of Illinois home health aides who sued to avoid paying union fees. Far right, anti-union forces are pushing the suit.

A ruling against the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, would strike a punishing blow against all unionized home care workers. As poorly as home care workers are compensated in general, those in unions have negotiated higher wages and greater benefits than their non-union counterparts.

Carrying a union card is a major tool in closing the earning gap and climbing out of poverty. Unionized workplaces also mean a more stable workforce for employers.

With baby boomers retiring and all Americans living longer, the need for home care workers is skyrocketing. Taking care of our graying population and disabled persons means taking care of their caregivers. That means justice for home care workers.