Workers tell prominent Dems of need for home care dollars
Now is the time to deliver on home care. | SEIU/Twitter

WASHINGTON—One by one, except for Pennsylvanians in a verbal duet, home care workers marched to the podium in a congressional meeting room to tell prominent Democrats of the need for a lot more federal funding for the nation’s 2.4 million home care workers and the clients they serve.

Not that the Dems, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York, and Senate Aging Committee Chair Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, needed much convincing at the Sept. 23 session.

All promised that the billions of dollars needed to expand home care, build more care centers and give the workers both a living wage and the right to unionize will pass this Congress—hopefully by the end of September.

The home care workers, marshaled by the Service Employees and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, need it. Which is why dozens of them hit Capitol Hill in one of many rallies for particular causes in the week ending Sept. 24. But to back up their pitch, the home care workers set up a toll-free number, 855-963-2258, for supporters to call lawmakers.

“Care cannot wait. We have waited too long. We will not wait any longer,” declared April Verrett, the purple-clad president of SEIU Local 2015 in Los Angeles, who emceed the event.

“One of the best ways to deliver the best care of course is to care for the worker — to lift her up, to give her a better wage, to invest in her, to allow her of course to join a union.” —Senator Bob Casey | SEIU/Twitter

One speaker noted almost half of home care workers need public assistance to help themselves and their own families survive, since the average worker’s wage is $11-$12 an hour, and there are no benefits and no health insurance.

And that’s for the workers who get paid. Deborah McCallister, a middle-aged Black woman from North Carolina estimated millions more are like her: She, like 40% of that group, left her job to care for her aging and ailing mother at home, 24/7.

“I’m not paid a dime,” McAllister said. But those workers too sacrifice to care for aging and ailing parents or disabled children. Like other home care workers, most are female (87% of all home care workers) and women of color (63%).

We don’t qualify for quality care” programs “or for Medicaid,” McAllister added. That’s because her family survives, barely, on her $822 monthly pension “and my father’s pension.”

“Guess what? That’s not enough to pay the bills.” That’s also why McAllister’s a Fight For $15 And A Union activist. North Carolina law bans unions for workers like her.

“We came through the storm and the rain to get here but guess what? WE’RE HERE TO WIN!” —Deborah Linette McAllister, with Fight for 15 and a union activist from North Carolina | SEIU/Twitter

“If we had a union, I could get the wages that would let me care for my mother.”

Absent unions, though, Democratic President Joe Biden’s expansion of the social safety net is their goal. But whether the Dems can keep their political promise to the Care Can’t Wait coalition and approve the legislation remains hostage to the vagaries of politics—a prospect only Casey alluded to, but didn’t spell out.

That’s because the home care money is part of Biden’s Builds Back Better agenda and specifically of the $3.5 trillion measure lawmakers are now considering. It’s getting bombarded on Capitol Hill, including by renegade “moderate” Democrats, and the GOP is united against it.

The bill will probably hit the House floor the week of Sept. 27. It’s hostage to an intramural fight. On one side: Nine moderates whose votes Pelosi needs since Dems hold the House 220-212. They think $3.5 trillion is too much, but won’t say what they’d cut.

One reason: Expanding federal funds for home care is immensely popular with voters. The coalition came to the meeting armed with a new poll showing 81% national support for the idea, including a slim majority of GOP voters, if not of GOP lawmakers. They call it “socialism.”

On the other side is the 90-plus member Progressive Caucus. Its members threaten to walk away from the companion $978 billion bill for “hard” infrastructure—subways, buses, airports, bridges, broadband, railroads, and roads—which the moderates constructed and support unless their bigger bill, including the home care money and many other programs to expand the social safety net, gets the OK first.

After all, speakers said, home care is “infrastructure,” too—the infrastructure that lets other workers, men and women, go off to their jobs.

The rocks in the road didn’t stop the workers, their leaders, and at least one lawmaker, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., from elaborating on the need for better, expanded home care, since the nation’s ranks of the elderly and the disabled escalate daily. Hassan and her spouse have a caregiver for their 33-year-old son, Ben, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy.

Besides McAllister, who turned preacher (to the choir) at the end, the Pennsylvania duo, Erica Weidner of SEIU Pennsylvania and Erica Payne of Pittsburgh, were especially eloquent.

“Home care workers have done so much important work and we don’t do it along partisan lines,” Weidner began. “We care for you, and we need someone to care for us.”

“I’m angry at how my mother, who is my ‘client,’ and every other client is treated by this government” and a “broken, chaotic” home care system, Payne chimed in. It’s underfunded, too, she said. “People are dying.”

“We can’t nickel and dime dignity.” — Ai Jen-Poo, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Domestic Workers | SEIU/Twitter

“Home care workers help people live independent lives who would otherwise be in nursing homes,” Weidner followed. And nursing home care costs state and federal governments, through Medicaid, at least four times as much money, per client, as home care, Domestic Workers Alliance Executive Director Ai Jen-Poo said later.

Biden’s program would give home care workers “agency, dignity on the job and income. It’s essential,” she said. “We’ve been written out, disconnected, and dismissed for far too long” added Local 2015’s Verrett. “We need higher pay, better benefits, and a path to a union.”

Weidner had one more warning, directed not towards the lawmakers, but towards the entire country.

Everybody else, too, may well wind up needing home care—or face being warehoused in a nursing home. “You are one car accident away from needing care. Money for home care workers should not be broken down,” she warned.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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