As Election Approaches, Home Care Workers Push Case for Wages

The home health care industry is in the midst of major changes that are largely being brought about through activism from individual home health care workers.

Home care workers, who only were granted eligibility for overtime and minimum wage benefits recently, are helping influence a new wave of legislation for higher wages. In an election year, these issues are seemingly all brought to the forefront, with a strong surge or activism from those on the ground. And some policymakers are taking up their cause.

“We’ve got to raise the minimum wage for everybody!” Representative Lois Frankel (D – FL) said during a recent policy roundtable event in West Palm Beach, Florida. “All workers deserve a raise. I think someone taking care of my parent is worth a whole lot more to me than $15 an hour. I’m going to keep fighting to make sure you get the pay you deserve, and I’ll keep fighting to protect and expand social security and Medicaid to make sure that all families can afford the care they need.”

While some legislation has favored the causes of home care workers, including individual cities raising wages over time, others in the industry have pushed back against drastic wage hikes. The decision by the Department of Labor to extend wage and overtime benefits coverage to nearly 2 million home care workers was challenged via a lawsuit by trade organizations, including the National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC). The case made its way toward the Supreme Court before it declined to hear the case, Home Care Association of America v. Weil.

In Florida, where 23.4% of the population, or nearly 4.4 million people, are over the age of 60, health care issues are extremely important to voters and legislators.

“As your mayor, it’s important to me that our seniors and people living with disabilities can live with dignity and receive the quality care they deserve,” West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said during the panel. “That is why my office is hosting this important conversation. My hope is that West Palm Beach will play a leading role in securing a healthier future for Florida’s seniors, caregivers and the long term care industry.”

‘The No. 1 Problem’

Low wages could create a bigger problem down the road as millions of Americans are due to enter retirement and will need care. As a result, the home health industry is facing a major labor shortage in the next several years.

“As more people get older, we will need more home care workers,” Patricia Walker, a home care worker from Tampa, Florida, who has more than 20 years of experience, told Home Health Care News. “But a lot of people don’t want to go into home care because of the money we make. That’s the No. 1 problem.”

Lower wages have also been a factor in high turnover rates plaguing the industry, as some home care workers make their way into professions that involve less skill that pay similar or higher wages, such as fast food or retail jobs.

For those who do stick around in the industry as home care workers, an election year presents an opportunity to make their voices heard, home care workers say.

“How can you save for the future when you’re not making anything?” Gwen Strowbridge, a home care worker from Deerfield, Florida, said during the panel. “I’m 71 and still working in home care. My day is coming soon. Who’s going to care for me when I need care myself? We have to make sure to vote. Vote to elect leaders that will stand with us. Vote to make sure that the younger generation has it better.”

The reason home care workers remain in the industry for decades-long careers, like Walker and Stonebridge, is because of their caregiving nature and the fulfillment of the job.

“We love what we do,” Walker said. “You have to be a very special, caring individual to go through what we go through. We’re not just home care workers, we are our patients’ best friends, their cook, we do their bathing, laundry, shopping. We are everything from the good person to the bad person. We do it because we love our clients and it gives them dignity. It gives them respect.”

Investing in the home care workforce with higher wages and supports through legislation will help boost the number of caregivers that will be desperately needed in the years ahead and provide quality care and dignity for seniors, advocates say.

Written by Amy Baxter