As the initiative for a fifteen dollar minimum wage expands from fast food workers to contract professors and beyond, the Seminole Heights Public Library in Tampa served as the launching point for a move to unionize home health care workers as part of the ongoing Fight for 15 movement.
Wednesday's town hall meeting brought together union representatives, local politicians and activists along with a large representative of practicing home health care workers as they packed the conference room of the library. The focus was on the workers themselves and the struggles they faced as they were often forced to juggle assignments and unfavorable contracts from multiple agencies in an effort to make ends meet, leading to unimaginable working schedules.
“I work 196 hours every two weeks or maybe more,” said Anne Buckner, who has been a home health care worker for about six years. “I work for five different agencies. The reason why is to make ends meet. ... I had to go to the hospital the other week because I thought I was having a heart attack, but it was from the stress of running from here to there taking care of patients. I love doing what I do. When you go into their homes, lot of people expect you to do more than just care for them. I'm not supposed to walk their dogs or wash their widows, but sometimes I'll just do it because that's the love I have.”
And while it's a career many pursue out of compassion, the speakers said that doesn't mean they shouldn't be fairly compensated.
“I think it's time for a change,” said Ruben Masas, who has been in the field for more than two decades. “These agencies don't even offer us health insurance, no 401K. At our agency we don't even get overtime, no sick days, no vacation time, nothing.”
Organizations in attendance supporting the home health care workers included the Florida Consumer Action Network, Bay Area Activist Coalition, Awake Tampa, the Florida Public Services Union and organizers from the fast food workers' Fight for 15, with the contingent from the 1199 Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers East having a dominant presence.
When it was the 1199's Executive Vice President Monica Russo's turn to speak, following an introduction befitting of Sunday church services, she focused on the necessity of highly skilled home health care workers and the need for an unified front not just in the medical field, but among all workers.
“We are united around the issue of injustice," she said. "How can you have what is being called a silver tsunami of incredibly rapid growth of an aging population in our country and here in our state? These are our elders, these are our grandparents, these are our parents, and we're not going to pay those that treat and care for our loved ones? We're not going to pay them and treat them with dignity and respect and a decent wage? With all of the resources in this economy? It's not like the money's not there. It's about our priorities as a society.”
There were several local politicians in attendance lending support, including two city council members who had just secured their re-elections on Tuesday. Lisa Montelione of District 7 and Yvonve "Yolie" Capin of District 3 both spoke to the audience.
“In the state of Florida we pay the lowest wages for the people who do the most amount of work,” said Montelione. “Not only in home health care, which most people associate with the elderly, but you take care of disabled, you take care of children, you take care of a lot of people who obviously can't take care of themselves. It's depressing to have so many people who care to do the work for the wage they make. I think it's unconscionable.”
Both City Council members made it clear that any legislation regarding minimum wage could only come from the State government.
“Unfortunately our hands are tied by the legislators in Tallahassee,” said Montelione. “Because the state has laws on the book that say city jurisdictions can not set wages for their population, only the state can. Being with you, championing the cause, doing what we can to advocate, we will do all of those things. We just can't change the dollar amount.”
The next step for the Fight for 15 movement comes on April 15, when St. Petersburg City Hall and Tampa's Copeland Park will be the local bases for a nationwide strike among low wage earners. Flyers at the town hall meeting characterized the strike as “the largest low-wage protest in history.”
“We need to create a movement,” said Russo of the upcoming strike while alluding to the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. “This is real. We won't be able to cross this bridge to fifteen unless, we're willing to fight. We have to cross that bridge together."