In 2008, let's resolve to pay home care workers what they deserve

December 30, 2007|By Tram Nguyen

Here's a New Year's wish: Pay the people who care for our loved ones at home a decent wage.

They change bedpans, tend bedsores, give baths, do laundry and make the meals. They also provide much-needed companionship and even basic medical treatment.

Without the contributions of home care workers, life would be that much harder for 13 million aging, chronically ill or disabled Americans and their families. But for all they provide, home care aides get short shrift.

They make an average wage of $8 an hour, often with no benefits. The rate of injury is high - usually from back injuries, sprains and falls that come from the physical demands of the job.

Women of color have traditionally been the ones doing the care-giving. This is low-status and low-paid work, which once fell to slaves and servants.

Today, of the 2 million home care workers nationwide, more than half are black or immigrant and the majority are women.

Over the past 15 years, organized labor has won increased wages and health benefits for home care workers in some states.

But employers have the upper hand. This past summer, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the right to overtime pay and a minimum wage for home care workers on the basis that "domestic service" hired by families is exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Congress should pass a law overturning that ruling. We must support a floor of better wages, benefits and respect for home care workers.

As baby boomers age and the desire for health care assistance at home intensifies, demand for qualified home health care workers is likely to increase. Consider these facts: An estimated 4.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, a figure that has more than doubled since 1980. Seventy percent of Alzheimer's patients remain at home as their disease progresses and families struggle to care for them, relying in part on home aid workers.

Day in and day out, home health care workers do the heroic yet unheralded work that makes daily life livable for many of our loved ones.

The least we can do is pay them a living wage and honor their service.

Tram Nguyen is the editor of Colorlines magazine in Oakland, Calif. She wrote this for the Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.

Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column will return next week.

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