The Work Behind the Work: Living Wages for Direct Care Workers

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Nurse with eldery patientIn the digital age, there are few surprises, and we know that tonight’s State of the Union address is likely to confirm an executive order that will raise to $10.10 an hour the minimum wage paid to federal contractors that receive new awards.

Clearly, any effort to reduce the ever-widening income gap is one step forward.

But is it far enough? At $10.10 an hour, a full-time worker will gross about $400 per week or about $21,000 annually. While that is enough to lift one person above the federal poverty level, a family of four will remain below it. In the Washington metropolitan area, home to so many federal workers and contractors, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $1,300. So a worker who expects to eat, drive, or ride a bus will need to apply for safety net care or find another job.

In the world of aging services and elder care, individuals and institutions rely daily on the work of direct care workers (e.g., home health aides, paid caregivers) to provide care that ranges from bathing people to getting them to the bathroom. It can be backbreaking work. The field, touted as one of the fastest growing in the labor sector, is composed almost entirely of women. According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, the average hourly wage for home health aides in 2009 (adjusted for inflation) was $7.54. Nearly half were living below federal poverty levels, and nearly half relied on safety net benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Earlier this year, the Administration took steps to improve direct care worker pay, extending protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include minimum wage and overtime payment for the nation’s 2 million direct care workers. Despite concerted efforts by the home health industry to prevent the change in the rule, advocates for direct care workers prevailed and, in late 2013, celebrated their success.

Yet even with that protection, these full-time workers will remain in poverty. Wages vary slightly by state, but most hover at a little more than $7 per hour. Even the most frugal among us would be hard-pressed to make ends meet on less than $300 per week.

Ai-Jen Poo, whom Time cites as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, recently told an audience in Washington, DC, that the work performed by direct care workers and other domestic employees is, in fact, “the work that makes all other work possible.” Indeed, care work is the work that enables us to raise our children, organize our households, care for our aging parents, and survive our own problems. Were it not for the women who show up every day at our homes and health care facilities, the rest of us would not be at our desks or in our offices.

Raising one bit of the minimum wage is a start, but it is only that. People who care about and for others deserve more: living wages, respect, and programs that enable them not only to squeak by but to thrive. We decry income inequality, but we also need to pay what the work is really worth.

It is ironic, too, that the extraordinary life of Pete Seeger came to an end hours before the State of the Union: One of his many quotes floating around today is, “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” We cannot stop time or growth, but we can make time to take care of each other in many ways, including paying people who work hard.


Dr. Joanne Lynn's Hopes for the State of the Union

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