Fresh Ideas: Home care workers deserve fair wages |

Fresh Ideas: Home care workers deserve fair wages

Abby Johnson
For the Nevada Appeal

Even the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is a very long day for America’s home care workers. These underpaid, predominantly female workers care for the elderly and disabled at home. They are the miracle workers who make it possible for the aged and infirm to stay in their own homes rather than be institutionalized. Many receive less than minimum wage and their employers are not required to pay them overtime.

In the final month of my father’s life, home care workers eased him (and our family) through a marathon of days and nights at home, where he wanted to die. These professionals truly provide essential services.

Last week the Obama administration proposed an initiative to require that home care workers be paid fairly. Currently they are considered to be “companions” exempt from minimum wage and overtime laws. According to the White House, 92 percent are women, nearly 50 percent are minorities, and nearly 40 percent rely on Medicaid and food stamps because of how little they earn.

The proposal, like nearly everything these days, is controversial. Unions are pushing to ensure that these workers, on the edge of poverty themselves, are adequately compensated for their work and transportation to their jobs.

Republican lawmakers, according to Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times, are pushing back. Paying these women a fair wage will increase costs for state and federal programs. They predict another threat to the solvency of Medicare and Medicaid, and anticipate that it will be more costly to keep seniors at home. Increasing caregiver wages would make home care services unaffordable, they posit, resulting in more elderly consigned to nursing homes, costing the government and individuals even more.

But paying fair wage to home care workers is a necessary prelude to the skyrocketing boomer boom. The government expects the nation’s age 65 and older population will rise from 40 million today to more than 72 million by 2030; 27 million will need some form of home care.

Coping with the elderly and disabled who need to be fed, dressed and bathed takes a special kind of unflappable person with a big heart, a strong back, and boundless patience.

If there are angels among us this holiday week, count these underpaid caregivers in that throng. Recognizing their hard work and rewarding it fairly with the same rights as other workers is an overdue Christmas gift that home care workers deserve.

• Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.