GUEST COLUMN:

Home care workers need good jobs and respect

Providing home care is more than just a job for me, it’s a spiritual calling. I not only care for my clients’ physical needs, I strive to lift up their mood and quality of life. Home care is tough and important work, and is needed now more than ever because of Nevada’s rapidly aging population.

But poverty wages and a lack of benefits are creating a severe workforce shortage. That’s why workers and advocates are mobilizing to demand an overhaul of our care infrastructure and a reimagining of what the care economy looks like, which would ensure quality, affordable long-term care services for families.

I have been a home care worker for over two decades. I’ve cared for everyone from an elderly stroke victim to a young man who lost his legs in an accident. I help with cooking, feeding, bathing, grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions, taking clients to the doctor and making sure they take their medications on time.

I’ve also been an ordained minister for the past 15 years, and see my home care work and spiritual ministry as intertwined. For my older clients, sometimes I brush their hair and laugh with them, just to offer them loving comfort. For my young client who had lost his legs, I encouraged him to address his depression, develop a sense of optimism and purpose, and set new life goals.

In other words, home care workers provide all the support that allows our clients to remain at home with maximum dignity, independence and well-being. Home care workers have always been essential, but during the pandemic we have become absolutely crucial to protecting those most vulnerable and trying to get this terrible virus under control. When I talk to co-workers about their experience, I have to fight back tears, because caregivers are on the front lines and in the trenches without critical basic protections like paid sick leave, health care coverage and protective equipment.

Many home care workers have been infected by the coronavirus, and some have made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives. This lack of protection is indicative of the overall devaluing of home care work since the times of slavery. The home care workforce is predominantly women of color, like myself, and a third are immigrants. Systemic racism and sexism have kept workers mired in poverty. After 20 years, I only make $12.50 an hour and my job does not provide any health care, paid sick days or job-training opportunities.

Poverty jobs are not only bad for home care workers; they’re bad for the families getting care for their loved ones, and by extension, bad for entire communities. Poverty jobs mean high turnover, making it extremely difficult for families to find the home care services they need. Our state’s population is aging faster than the rest of the country, with 1 in 6 Nevadans over the age of 65, and to meet demand, we’ll need 10,000 more home care jobs by the next decade.

That’s why home care workers have been organizing with the health care union, SEIU 1107, to call for better quality care and jobs. We have been rallying, phone banking, knocking on doors and speaking with our elected leaders. During the recent elections, throughout Nevada and across the country, Black and Latina women made the crucial difference in local, state and federal races. It’s time our voices are finally heard so we can address historic injustices in the long-term care system.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have listened to us, and have proposed a care workforce plan that would invest in home care to eliminate the long waiting list for services; create one and a half million new care jobs to solve the workforce shortage; provide living wages, health care and paid sick leave for workers; expand job-training opportunities so clients receive the highest standards of care; and ensure that every home care worker has the basic freedom to join a union.

This plan would help heal our state’s battered economy by generating thousands of good union jobs for working families. I’m urgently calling on Nevada’s congressional leaders to support this plan, so seniors, people with disabilities, and those of us who care for them can all have a better, brighter future.

While home care is more than just a job, at the end of the day, I am a professional. Let’s start treating home care workers as the professionals we are, and everyone, from those we care for to the families who can depend on us, will benefit.

Erma Henderson has been a home care worker for over 20 years and lives in Las Vegas.