Taking Care of Our Caretakers

Editors note: The following post by Secretary Perez and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan originally ran as an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times. View the original here.

Secretary Perez and Attorney General Madigan

Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Secretary Perez

Every day across our nation, about 2 million people, including 73,000 in Illinois, go to work caring for people in their homes. They bathe our parents and grandparents, and administer their medications. They help our children with disabilities get dressed. They brush our sisters’ hair, and assist our brothers with shaving. They prepare meals for our elderly neighbors; monitor blood pressure for our aunts and uncles; help our friends with physical therapy exercises.

Their work is demanding. It can be dirty. It can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. But it can also be enormously satisfying. Most important, it allows our loved ones to live in their homes with dignity and independence, rather than in institutions.

And yet, until recently, these home care workers could be paid less than the minimum wage for their work. A decades-old exemption in federal regulations allowed them to be included in the same category as babysitters. The U.S. Department of Labor last year issued new regulations to address that problem, which means home care workers can no longer be paid a sub-minimum wage for the critical, difficult work they do.

Unfortunately, last month the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn made it harder for home care workers in Illinois to get decent wages and benefits. Nine out of 10 home care workers are women — about half of them are women of color. An estimated 40 percent are on some form of public assistance. They earn about $20,000 a year, often working far more than 40 hours per week. One woman told us that she left her job as a home health aide to work at a fast food restaurant because it paid better.

We can’t afford to pay so little to workers who are in increasingly high demand. With our largest generation — the baby boomers — hitting retirement age at a moment when American life expectancy is higher than ever, we’ll need 50 percent more home care workers by 2022.

Labor unions help ensure that home care workers receive fair wages, workplace protections and benefits, as well as professional development and training. Those provisions have attracted more qualified workers and reduced turnover rates, which has resulted in significant savings for taxpayers. Illinois saves over $600 million a year in Medicaid costs via the home-care model instead of more costly public institutionalization.

As our population ages and the trend away from institutional care and toward in-home services grows, it’s in our collective interest to ensure a sustainable pipeline of skilled workers ready to provide the care so many of us will rely on at some point in our lives. Public sector unions help build that pipeline by guaranteeing decent wages and adequate benefits for a growing work force.

These workers aren’t merely companions. They are professionals, doing heroic, demanding and increasingly skilled work. The services they provide allow us to remain in our homes, in our communities, while still receiving critical care.

So they deserve our respect, our admiration and our gratitude. But more important, they deserve to be treated fairly, with all of the rights and protections in the workplace that Americans have come to expect. That includes the right to have a voice in the workplace and the right to bargain collectively.  

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Comments (6)

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  1. Guy Knoller says:

    Caretakers should be covered under the FLSA for both minimum wage and overtime. It
    is patently unjust not to cover them.

  2. Irma Desiderio says:

    I honor and respect every caregiver, to include those paid and not paid. I am an unpaid caregiver, and our society needs to acknowledge those who don’t get paid, for where would those individuals be without there help?

  3. Sharon Mayon says:

    Here is a breakdown of what our company is paid. The owners of this company say they would like to pay overtime, but say it would drive them out of business.
    EPSDT $10.12 hr
    Children Choice $14.00 hr
    NOW/SIL Day $14.44 hr
    NOW SIL Night $8.68 hr
    SIL – Commit Log $16.93 unit (each SIL client receives 4 units weekly in addition to their day and night hours)
    CCW $11.16 hr
    LTC $11.40 hr
    SWR $14.64 hr

    From the numbers above employee’s are paid, then there’s overhead. This is where the problem starts. If we pay overtime, this will close all companies, unless they increase the numbers above paid to companies. Seems we are driving elderly into the public institution.
    We would have to pay everyone that works overtime $7.25 hr then if that doesn’t work, we will have to hire a lot more people and keep everyone at 40 hrs a week.

    Now the owners would never let us see the books. So I can only say what I’ve been told. I may not have a job when or if the overtime happens.

  4. Mary Paulk says:

    I totally agree that healthcare workers deserve better wages and the right to bargain collectively. What can I do to help?

  5. Sonja says:

    Thanks for the article. I agree with the principal elements of the article – home healthcare workers should be treated with respect and paid a decent wage. Instead of simply thinking about the union as the only viable option for achieving a fair wage, might it not be more beneficial to consider those workers as employees or consultants of the states in which they operate. They would be governed by the same laws that apply to state workers along with the same benefits. I realize that some states may be unionized, but regardless of the status, I believe we should seek a solution that accomplishes the main goals mentioned in the article, while not pricing their services out of the market. I remember when cars were cheaper than they are today – prices being driven up by very expensive labor. My two cents and thanks again for the article.

  6. Greg says:

    In the Harris case these people worked primarily for family members and unionization was forced upon them by the governor. No free election no option just another way for grubby handed unions to get a piece of their wages. There is no negotiation for wages in this case, the amount paid is set by the government. At least be honest in your article.

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