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Care workers deserve pay that better matches their service 4/23/2015

Last week, underpaid care workers — home-care providers and nursing-home and hospital workers — across Florida took to the streets to fight for $15 an hour and a union. They are a part of a growing movement that includes adjunct professors and fast-food, airport-services, child-care and Wal-Mart workers in 230 cities from Miami to Portland.

Molita Cunningham, a home-care worker from Cutler Ridge, was out there with them.

Caring for others is in Cunningham's blood — her mother was a home-care worker who made $3.35 an hour in the 1970s. A decade later, when the younger Cunningham entered the field, wages were still just $3.35. It took 15 years for her to earn an hourly wage of $8.25. She makes $10 now, but it's not nearly enough to support her family.

Home-care workers do some of the most important work in our society, enabling seniors and people with disabilities to live at home with dignity and independence. Yet they are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, making an average of just $13,000 a year.

Cunningham works in hospice care, taking care of people in the last days of their lives. Some have terminal cancer, some are victims of auto accidents, and some have HIV. She feeds, bathes and dresses them. She does the physically demanding work of lifting them into chairs and taking them outside to get fresh air. She is an informal counselor, talking family members through illness and death. When emotions run high, she is a mediator. Often, she is asked to lead prayers. It is intense, draining work, which she does for 12 hours each day.

"I cry every day," says Cunningham.

In recent years, she has been cross-trained to do skilled, technical work previously done by licensed practical nurses, such as administering medication and conducting EKGs. Cunningham and other home-care providers are doing nursing work, without nursing pay. She works long hours, without health insurance or reimbursement for her hour-and-a-half commutes.

Here's what's incredible about Cunningham: She loves her job.

"If it was about the money I would have left a long time ago, but you start to care for your patients," she says. "I love all of my patients."

I know firsthand just how important home-care workers like Cunningham are.

A few years ago, I got a call that my mother — who had been perfectly healthy — had only a few weeks to live. I rushed from Miami to her bedside in Pennsylvania. My siblings and I — like so many families who deal with the illness of a loved one — were overwhelmed. It is thanks to the generous, patient, dedicated home-care workers who cared for my mother that her final days included the peace and attention she needed and deserved.

Home-care workers give so much to other families; it is simply not right that they struggle to take care of their own.

An hourly wage of $15 would change Cunningham's life. Like many home-care workers, she receives help from numerous government programs to support herself and her three children. But with a wage increase, she says, "I could say to heck with food stamps; I can buy my own groceries. To heck with housing assistance, I can pay my rent. It would mean I could breathe." She could also, for once, take her children — a teenage son and twin girls — to the movies.

Over the next 10 years, the number of people who will need home care will double. By 2022, we will need 1 million more home-care workers. The need will be particularly acute in Florida, which ranks first in the country with 4.8 million residents age 60 or older.

The care workers who will comfort us in our most vulnerable times must earn enough to take care of our families and theirs. We must not relegate millions of home-care workers to lives of poverty.

Cunningham was up at 4:30 a.m. on April 15 to do whatever it took for $15 and a union. She says, "I've been so excited about this movement; I'm just excited to be a part of it. I'm fighting to win. I'm in it to win it, and I'm sure, we will win."

Home-care jobs must become good jobs for Cunningham, and for every underpaid worker across Florida and the United States.

Monica Russo is executive vice president of SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East and president of the SEIU Florida State Council.

 

Subtitle: 
A columnist advocates paying care workers better so they can care for their own families.