Seventy-seven years ago, US leaders suffered from a failure of imagination. This particular failure had profound implications. The early 20th century was a tumultuous time of strikes and pickets and tragic deaths – of immigrant women burned alive in sweatshops, of rail-thin children toiling in mills and of mine workers put on trial for trying to improve their desperate lots. In this moment, moved by the voices and activism of thousands of working people, federal legislators recognized the need for change. They began to imagine a world where workers were protected and valued, where someone who put their sweat and care into a job would not perish from poverty or overwork. And they enacted legislation – the Fair Labor Standards Act – that would codify this vision, guaranteeing every worker basic minimum standards.
We have to ensure that every state – and every state resident – sees home care as a valuable resource that we all will need.
But even in that hopeful moment of shared imagination, key white legislators couldn’t conceive of a world in which Black and white workers’ wages could be equal. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, but it excluded the vocations most often occupied by the descendants of former slaves: farmers and domestic workers. This failure of imagination had far-reaching and harmful consequences. Today, workers in the fastest growing workforce in the country – home care – have to live on poverty wages, struggling to pay for the gas that will get them to the seniors they assist each day. In many ways, the workers who provide those services have not changed; they are still largely women, with women of color and especially Black women providing a disproportionate amount of the care for all in the nation. As has always been the case for domestic work, these workers pour their care, commitment and energy into their work, but can’t consistently stay in this workforce nor invest in building deepened skills.
D’Rosa Davis, for example, provides home care in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and says that when she is accompanying her client on outings, “often, people thank me for helping to keep him in his community.” Although she is proud of the work she does and the independence she allows her clients to have, she cannot afford healthy meals and clothing for her own family.
Meriam Jawhar, a personal care attendant in New Mexico, says, “My empathy brought me to caregiving.” She sees home care work as an important profession:
What do I want people to know about home care workers? That it’s an occupation. To give it honor, to give it validity, you are caring for another human being. You are making that person feel whole despite whatever they are going through. You have to do things correctly, not just go through the motions. You have to be highly skilled in so many areas. Can we look at it that way? This needs to be regarded as a good occupation, like a nurse or a doctor. You should be able to say “I want to be a caregiver” and it’s an recognized occupation.
Home care workers and their families bear the brunt of our nation’s lack of imagination. But the impact of an unstable, poorly compensated workforce extends to all of us. It means we’ll have a high turnover of workers. It means that the best caregivers will be forced into other work in search of livable wages. And it means that people with disabilities and seniors won’t have the guarantee of access to quality support and services. This really does affect all of us.
But we’re at a turning point – the start of something huge.
After years of exclusion, the Department of Labor took steps to update dusty, unjust exclusions, such that the nearly 2 million home care workers who are currently excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act can be protected. Although the Labor Department’s updates were under threat due to a lawsuit brought by for-profit industry groups, on August 21, workers prevailed when a three-judge panel found unanimously that the Department of Labor acted well within its authority.
But this is just the beginning. And we will need our imaginations once again, learning from the mistakes of the past by conceiving of a world in which every person is valued. In a political moment when any investment in public systems and infrastructure comes under attack, we have to ensure that every state – and every state resident – sees home care as a valuable resource that we all will need. As our nation is aging, many state governors are going in the wrong direction, making it harder for residents to qualify for state-funded home care in Illinois; stripping home care workers of collective bargaining rights in Ohio; threatening deep cuts to the social services budget in Connecticut; and aggressively opposing basic wage protections for home care workers in Kansas. These acts move us further away from the future we all deserve – and, just like our nation’s failure with the Fair Labor Standards Act, they increase inequality and deeply burden workers, seniors, people of color and people with disabilities.
We can do better. Each of us has the power to join together to hold our elected officials accountable to our communities and to the future we want to create. We must invest our shared resources into creating the networks of care that ensure that all of us can live and age with dignity and respect.
That means working in states to ensure that governors and legislatures include living wages for home care workers in state Medicaid budgets. And it means pushing back on budget cuts that strip away the resources low- and middle-income people need to live independently in their communities.
Each of us has a role in continuing to tell elected leaders that Americans support and need quality home care, including quality jobs and living wages for home care workers. We have to imagine a world in which home care is a profession that our children can embrace and take pride in – and where home care is a valued and accessible resource that we can all use when we or our families need.
Here’s what we know: We all want to stay in the communities that value us and to lead lives full of the dignity and independence we all deserve. All of us will eventually need care, and many of us will also be involved in providing care, as well. That means we have to imagine a fairly paid, well-funded and diverse workforce of home care workers, offering skilled services that are available to all of us. We need to imagine that day in the future – and we need to act in the present to make it so.