California must commit to making caregiving a career for the future

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OPINION – Caregiving became my second career the way it does for many women my age; my aging father needed my help. I had recently retired from the corporate world and my family had been relying on my care since we lost my mother at a young age. I chose caregiving out of love. Now, having seen so many of my fellow home care providers working around the clock and still stuck in poverty, I’ve come to understand that what our profession needs is respect.

The expectation that women – especially women of color – do backbreaking and emotionally taxing care work for sub-livable wages is a relic of our nation’s unconscionable era of slavery. Yet it is an idea that is very much alive today, perpetuated by laws and institutions that intentionally devalue our work. The landmark labor laws of the New Deal – the 40 hour work week, overtime pay, and minimum wage – purposefully excluded domestic and farm work. In other words, the labor done by Black and Brown people, particularly women, was left open to legal exploitation.

Three generations later, workers who provide care for elderly people and people with disabilities through the state’s In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program earn the minimum wage or just above it in most parts of California. It’s no coincidence that these workers are 80% women, 74% people of color, and 47% immigrants.

Besides driving inequality, the devaluing of care work means California is failing its promise to provide the human right of home care for elderly parents like my dad and our disabled community members. Everyone deserves the right to live with dignity in the place they choose.

The human right to home care is not yet a reality because low wages and lack of benefits are driving home care providers out of the work we love; 1 in 4 caregivers leave this work each year. A 2021 report from California’s state auditor showed tens of thousands of vulnerable elders and people with disabilities went without the care to which they are entitled, care aimed at preventing them from being forced into nursing homes. And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Every unused care hour is a stretch of time when a vulnerable person went without food or medicine, couldn’t shower, or had to take physical risks doing essential tasks unassisted, such as using the bathroom.

Undervaluing our caregivers is simply unsustainable when you consider the demographic changes happening in our nation; the needs for caring, patient and skilled care providers will explode in the next few years as more of our population reach their elder years.

The expectation that women – especially women of color – do backbreaking and emotionally taxing care work for sub-livable wages is a relic of our nation’s unconscionable era of slavery.

It’s time to not only examine the impact of our history on the essential caregiving workforce and those we care for.  It’s time to finally value caregiving as an essential part of our future. My union, SEIU Local 2015, is leading this fight alongside our partners with the United Domestic Workers union. We know that for our state to be prepared with the caregiving workforce we need to support a growing elderly population, we have to change the power structure in the IHSS system.

As it stands now, California’s 400,000 home care workers are divided into 56 public authorities responsible for our pay and benefits at the county level.  We devote a tremendous amount of effort to bargaining at the local level to gain just a few pennies, and then the cycle starts over again. Dividing the bargaining power of workers 56 ways keeps us on a hamster wheel, never getting ahead.

We need a seat at the table statewide to truly transform this system and address statewide issues like low pay, lack of benefits, and little training that impede care across the state. AB 1672 by Assemblymember Matt Haney allows workers to sit down at the bargaining table directly with the Governor’s Administration to fight for better training, wages, and the care our clients need in every part of the state.

My second career in caregiving has given me joy; it allows me to help seniors and people with disabilities feel valued and dignified. Now I’m working toward the day when our state values the care we give, and ensures the human right to care is available to all who need it.

Carmen Roberts is a caregiver and the Executive Vice President of SEIU Local 2015, the largest union of caregivers in the nation.

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