Editor’s Take: Documentary Focuses on Plight of Home Caregivers

Rising minimum wage levels have come to the forefront of American politics this year, with the Fight for $15 per hour taking center stage across numerous industries. Home care workers are one of those industries where on-the-ground activism has led to a big payoff—but only in some areas of the country.

For the vast majority of Americans working minimum and low-wage jobs, not much has changed. It’s a topic I report on often, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see what home care wages really look like, until I recently viewed a documentary focusing on the home care workers’ perspective. As home care workers continue to band together to push for higher wages, a recently released documentary portrays the lives and hardships of caregivers who take care of seniors at home.

The filmmakers underscore the dignity of home health care, while strongly making a point that home care workers deserve a living wage and that families should not go bankrupt to provide care to a loved one. In a word, I found the documentary heartbreaking. From the need to provide dignity and care for older Americans to the hardships faced by low-wage workers, the film attempts to expose some of the vulnerable points of the home care industry.

The documentary, Care, was funded by several groups, including ITVS, The MacArthur Foundation, The Ford Foundation and Chicken & Egg Pictures to take a deep dive into the caregiving world.

“From the time we are born, we start aging,” Ai-Jen Poo, author of Age of Dignity, co-director of Caring Across Generations and director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, says in the film. Poo advocates for better conditions and workforce protections for home care workers, emphasizing that just about everyone will need care when they are older. The average home care worker makes an average of $13,000 per year, an unsustainable salary for everyday living, Poo said.

Poo was also an advisor on the film. The film was directed by Diedre Fishel and produced by Tony Heriza, who regularly engages in media for social change.

While both consumers of home care and home health aides faced struggles related to finances, the film did offer some hope by skewing a pro-union stance from the workers’ perspective. Many home care workers depicted in the film were involved in local unions and advocacy groups working for higher wages. As a reporter who covers home health industry news with an audience made up mostly of providers and employers, I found myself much more emotional when viewing wage issues from the worker perspective. Though, the film does not give much credit to industry employers that face similar challenges related to rising wage pressures.

Shifting between four home settings, the documentary centers on the lives of home health caregivers and those with serious chronic illnesse sreceiving care in New York and Pennsylvania.

As the number of U.S. seniors continues to swell over the next decade or so, home caregivers are going to become all the more important. And yet, the fast growing workforce in the country faces some of the harshest realities and the industry could soon be facing a shortage of these much-needed caregivers.

“The fact that the fastest growing workforce earns poverty wages … is a huge problem,” Poo said in the film.

Laurie, a caregiver in McClure, Pennsylvania, said she made just over $300 per week as a caregiver to Larry, who suffered from COPD and emphysema. She doesn’t make enough to pay her rent without the help of her fiancé.

“I feel we are underpaid because … I am not thought of as a caregiver, because I’m in a home,” she said.

After taking care of Larry full time until he passed away, Laurie was unable to find a new permanent position with her home care agency, and eventually ended up working for the state of Pennsylvania doing work for roadways. Home care workers are not entitled to unemployment benefits when their patients die. While she made $5 more per hour and was entitled to full employee benefits, Laurie explained how she found the work less fulfilling and missed being a caregiver.

The effect of low wages for home care workers has the potential to upset the huge and growing demand for these workers. The best caregivers may be unwilling to stay in the profession due to the low wages, instead moving into other industries, even fast food.

“If we invest in this workforce…. they can be a huge part of the solution, managing chronic illnesses,” Poo said on a radio show, The Brian Lehrer Show, on New York’s outlet WNYC.

Around-the-clock home care for New York resident Peter decimated the family resources before the family qualified for Medicaid. However, once being on Medicaid, Peter’s wife Toni faced a new challenge in finding quality caregivers willing to stick around. Over the span of 12 months, Toni spent more on home care than she had made in the past four years, she said. Although the family was initially excited to get onto Medicaid, which would help pay for the services, they soon realized few nurses wanted to work for the low wages.

“We finally got onto Medicaid, and I thought it was fabulous news until we started using it,” Toni said in the film.

The struggle highlighted how little home care workers make and why few want to work for wages largely provided through Medicaid reimbursement.

Vilma, an undocumented home care worker who worked with 92-year old Dee, was approved for her green card during the filming of the documentary. Vilma originally started work in the U.S. cleaning homes, but moved into the high-demand industry of home care. Vilma was a strong advocate for the work she does and fighting for better wage conditions for the home care workforce.

“Every elder person has the right to have the real attention, the real care,” she said of home care.

Over all, I think the film depicts a very personal reality for many home care workers in the country. Though, many aspects of current wage laws are changing, for both employers and employees. While individual companies may struggle as wages continue to rise, the message is clear: the struggle exists on both sides.

Written by Amy Baxter