Vital work that pays poverty wages: Maine home care workers speak out

Vital work that pays poverty wages: Maine home care workers speak out

They do some of the most important work in Maine, including helping elderly Mainers live independently in their own homes in the oldest state in the nation. Despite their important contributions, home care workers earn some of the lowest wages of any workers in the state.

Now, Maine home care workers are speaking out about their experiences and two new proposals, one a legislative effort to improve services for senior citizens called the KeepME Home plan and the other a broader effort to raise the minimum wage by citizen initiative, both promise to increase wages for those who provide in-home care and begin to lift them out of poverty.

In an op-ed today in the Bangor Daily News, Ted Rippy described his experience as a home care worker:

“I worked for a home care agency from 1998 to 2003, and I was forced to be on MaineCare because we had no benefits with a pay rate that was just $7.71 an hour. Even after my ‘retirement’ from the agency, I continued to organize with other home care workers and fight for fair wages and better working conditions. Because of our efforts, we managed to get our wages up to $9.00 per hour in 2006.

But still, nine years later, workers are stuck right around that level, with most workers making around $10 an hour. […]

Home care workers ensure the well-being of the most vulnerable members of our own families. Because of their dedicated work, our loved ones can remain in their own homes and age with dignity.

Home care is not a job that we do for the money. It’s not easy work and not for everyone, but there are so many things I love about the job. When I play a part in someone getting cured and released from a difficult health situation, it’s a good feeling and one that has helped keep me going all these years.”

In an interview with the Portland Press Herald last week, Adelaide Manirakiza also spoke about her work and the importance of a fair wage:

Few have more to gain from the proposed legislation than home care workers, who make a little over $20,000 a year, on average, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Most of them, like Adelaide Manirakiza, must provide their own transportation to and from clients’ homes, no matter how far, so their real pay is a lot less.

Because Manirakiza receives no employee benefits, she gets health insurance through MaineCare. She also lives in subsidized housing, and she has used family welfare benefits from time to time to make ends meet and raise her four daughters, who are in college.

Sometimes, Manirakiza borrows money from friends to help with her daughters’ expenses. She’d like to be able to pay her own way.

“We do delicate, important, often difficult work,” Manirakiza said. “I have a big heart. I care about people. But this job doesn’t pay enough.”

Studies have repeatedly shown that caring for senior citizens in their home produces better outcomes and costs less  than providing care in a nursing home. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), institutional care of an elderly individual costs over five times as much as caring for that same individual at home. Saving money for both vulnerable seniors and taxpayers through reduced Medicare costs. HUD also found that quality of life for senior is greater at home that at nursing facilities because of the loss of social connection that’s common at nursing homes.

Homecare workers have historically found themselves left behind in past movements to increase wages and increase access to health care. This exclusion goes back as far as the depression-era, when domestic workers (mostly black women) were written out of labor laws to accommodate Southern segregationists. In 2013, the Department of Labor finally issued rules to grant care workers basic protections, but they were challenged by the home health care industry and ultimately struck down in federal court. The case is currently being appealed.

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