Investment, worker voice critical to addressing care crisis

Jacquelyn Kelly is a home care worker from Oakdale.

By Jacquelyn Kelly, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota

What we decide to do today will create the foundation on which our families will build their tomorrows. This is true for many parts of life, but it is especially true in the care field. As a home care worker and the mother of a child who needs care support, this issue is personal for me. As a leader in my union, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, I’ve come to learn that my fight is more common than I ever could have imagined.

For most of our history, home care workers (also sometimes known as Personal Care Attendants or PCAs) have been paid the minimum wage (or less) with little or no benefits. In Minnesota that was the case before we formed our union, winning what is still the largest union election in Minnesota history and bringing together over 25,000 caregivers, mostly women and people of color.

From when before we had our union until now, we’ve seen wages almost double (we will get to $15.25 in our current contract) and now have paid sick time, paid holidays, training and much more. But we still have so much work to do.

Like most parents of teens who are quickly coming of age, I often think about my child’s future and transition into independence. As a home care worker for my 16-year-old son, I spend every day working to support his independence, but also worry about the systems we have in place to support him if I am not able to support him.

Even before COVID there was a “care crisis” that meant there were close to 10,000 open positions because people didn’t want to do this physically and emotionally challenging work for the meager pay and benefits. In many cases, like mine, a family member provides the care, but thousands of people hire someone they don’t know to provide this intimate level of care. If this was you or your loved one, you’d want workers who feel respected and like their work had value, wouldn’t you?

I know my family will likely need home care workers for that independence to be possible, and I worry a lot about how that is going to be possible if we don’t have the care workers we need. The care industry is one of the fastest growing jobs in the country. I worry that if I can’t offer a living wage, benefits and a viable long term career path, caregivers will choose to move into other employment situations that provide more stability and less risk.

That’s why it is critical that congress pass President Biden’s Better Care, Better Jobs act, which would see a historic $400 billion investment in care work. This would create over 1 million jobs and help workers in non-union states with tools to organize into a union.

An investment in home care is not only supporting care workers, but also our disabled and elderly friends and neighbors who simply want to be able to live safely at home. An investment in making sure all people have the right to choose the life they want for themselves. We need to pivot from treating care as a problem for individuals and toward understanding that it is a shared experience across our society.

We need to reckon with the fact that through most of our history our country has seen care work done by women, and especially women of color, as not real and valuable work. Care workers have been left out and left behind for too long. After COVID, I hope we all know better now. Our communities, our families, our economy, we are all depending on the women doing this work to keep all of our lives going, and what could be more valuable than that?

– Jacquelyn Kelly is a home care worker from Oakdale and member of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. She wrote this “Labor Voices” column for The Union Advocate’s October 2021 edition.

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