IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. – Homecare workers celebrated a major victory here on the way to dignity and respect. On Sept. 17, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors unanimously supported homecare workers by approving an Employer of Record Ordinance and an Employer/
Employee Relations resolution. This historic vote demonstrated the board’s first step to recognize the 2,500 In Home Supportive Service (IHSS) homecare workers as “real” employees.
The United Domestic Workers called the board action historic and is planning to file for union representation. United Domestic Workers of America (UDW) is a labor union founded in 1977 in Cesar Chavez’ La Paz, Calif., backyard. Inspired by Chavez’ vision, UDW represents domestics and other homecare workers and is affiliated with the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees, AFL-CIO.
The ordinance created a public authority to manage the needs of county homecare workers. These workers earn less than minimum wage, without benefits, overtime, vacation or any of the labor protections that apply to many other workers in the United States.
Legislation (AB-1682) signed in 1999 by California Governor Gray Davis ended a legal pretense that homecare workers are employed by the respective disabled or elderly citizens for whom they care. Although these individuals often choose their homecare worker, the program is overseen by the county, which requires workers to submit timecards to the government, and they receive their paycheck from the government.
Taking care of disabled, elderly and frail citizens is hard and often times thankless work. Homecare workers clean, cook and provide a range of personal care to the elderly, blind, frail and disabled people who are too sick or unable to care for themselves. California provides these services to income-eligible individuals to keep them safely in their own homes. It is also a “cost-effective alternative” to nursing homes.
While the UDW says this program has some cost savings, there are flaws. Instead of using money to improve wages and benefits and helping to improve care, IHHS wastes money by looking for ways to exploit labor at the highest possible rate.
Providing wages and benefits to this previously “invisible” workforce was the major issue. The state and federal government pay 73 percent of the $17 million cost of establishing the public authority and employing the homecare workers. The county will pay the remaining 27 percent. Yet in this agriculture-based valley where 75 percent of the population is of Mexican descent, many of whom have roots just a few miles to the south in Mexicali, Mexico, the power base is held by the status quo. The unemployment rate here is consistently at 30 percent, and supervisors say they fear union negotiations would bankrupt the county.
“I might end up out there selling tamales,” exclaimed Supervisor Maruca to the more than 130 UDW homecare workers who had packed the chambers, Sept. 17, the majority of whom were of Mexican origin.
Imperial County CAO Ann Capela, said, “in the past our society depended on members of our family to take care of us in our old age. Now, we not only pay family members, but we’ve been forced to employ them.”
The bottom line is that quality care is often culturally constructed. Individuals who are sick or disabled often prefer to receive care from people who are ethnically, racially like them or from those with whom they are most comfortable, including family members.
As is usually the case, jobs such as homecare, which require nurturing qualities, are performed primarily by a female workforce who are underpaid. Sadly it seems jobs that are socially and morally worthwhile, but do not create a product to which a price can be affixed, are wildly undervalued.
The economic pressures of the “care system” are intensifying. Baby boomers will add to the existing demand for care providers in the coming years. Already 16 percent of all workers in the United States are in the “care sector,” according to economist Nancy Folbre of the Center for Popular Economics.
Homecare workers need higher wages, the lack of which leads to a turnover rate of about 30 percent. Recruitment of quality homecare workers has traditionally been difficult under the current standard of compensation.
Unionization, the implementation of AB-1682 and a collaborative approach to raising awareness about the economic and intrinsic value of care work will be essential in bringing about a new standard a standard which is not based on the usual capitalist scale or commensurate with a product’s marginal value. We need to start looking at how best to utilize our resources. The exploitation of homecare workers, sub-standard wages and denial of their worth is not the way to go.
Sara Martinez is the lead organizer for the UDW. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The PWW/Mundo is publishing an ongoing series about organizing the unorganized and welcome submissions, which can be sent to email@example.com