A thought came to me as I was watching Senator Cory Booker’s moving defense of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Senate confirmation hearing: we need that same type of forceful, emotive, righteous passion calling to transform our nation’s healthcare system.

A short 26 or so months ago, COVID-19 changed the world. Those days, when we didn’t know how the virus was transmitted and vaccines were not even on the horizon, were scary and deadly.

New York’s healthcare workers were thrown into the center of the fight against COVID from the beginning, and on many fronts. We staffed the hospitals and nursing homes, often providing care in facilities when owners and managers would not even set foot on the premises or provide the sanitizers and other personal protective equipment needed for us to do the job safely.

Homecare workers did their jobs even though it meant leaving the safety of their homes and families to take care of homebound people who could not take care of themselves because they knew that without that attention, their clients, many of whom they considered family and friends, would not survive without them.

Many of these individuals lost their lives in the process. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

New York’s caregivers were rightfully called heroes, and the public banged on pots and pans every evening to show their appreciation for them and other essential workers. With the support of 1199’s “Invest in Quality Care” and “Fair Pay for Home Care Workers” campaigns, leaders in Albany finally enacted long-overdue reforms to improve nursing homes for residents and staff. (Legislative leaders passed budget resolutions calling for permanent raises for homecare workers which, by the time this column goes to print, will hopefully have made it into our final state budget). All it took was the greatest health crisis in a century.

But as we look to the future, let’s not pretend that inequities in health care don’t continue to exacerbate broader economic, racial, and gender disparities. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” That rings just as true today as it did when he spoke it 56 years ago.

Home healthcare workers, who are overwhelmingly women of color—60% immigrant—are insultingly underpaid for the vital, difficult, and dangerous work they do. According to a City University of New York study, home healthcare workers on average made $15.93 an hour in 2020, way below the $21.77 an hour they would need to make for what is considered a living wage in this far too expensive city we call home.

No surprise then, that an estimated 50% of home healthcare workers in New York State receive some form of public assistance—what folks used to call welfare.

How ridiculous is that? The people who have provided lifegiving care to our friends, neighbors and family members before, during and after the pandemic, need help just to keep themselves and their families fed and a roof over their heads.

I wonder how comfortable our society would be if the police officers and firefighters we rely on to risk their lives to protect our homes and communities were so poorly paid? Why is a similarly critical set of essential workers—but who are overwhelmingly women and people of color—treated in such disparate ways?

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support sanitation workers, the majority of them Black men, who went on strike to protest poor pay and dangerous working conditions. The strike was set off by the deaths of two workers who were crushed by poorly maintained, malfunctioning equipment.

It was in Memphis that Dr. King made his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, a speech that decried the immense racial inequality and extreme economic exploitation faced by countless millions of Americans, and called for direct, non-violent action to confront these evils. The following day, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. But his final speech had a generational impact.
Maybe that’s what we need, a modern-day Dr. King, a Fannie Lou Hamer, or a John Lewis to lead our nation towards a nonviolent healthcare revolution. That person could point out how the low pay has frontline caregivers leaving their jobs in droves, or how, as more Baby Boomers become elderly and dependent, experts expect there will be 83,000 fewer home attendants working in New York State than there are people who need them.

If we are ever to live up to the founding ideals of our nation, we must carry on until we win the fight for quality health care and fair wages for all.

We will, as Brown-Jackson pledged, “persevere.”

President George Gresham leads 1199SEIU, the nation’s largest healthcare union representing 450,000 members in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and the District of Columbia.

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