When Workers’ Pay Gets Personal

In the last years of her life, my mother was a home care worker for hospice.

Janey Schultz showed up early and spent entire days with people whose relatives could not care for them. They had their reasons: geography, jobs, squeamishness or their own infirmities. I never heard my mother judge any of them. She just showed up, day after day.

Politicians and employers often call women like my mother “companion caregivers.” To the people who depend on them, they often are called angels.

My mother’s co-workers joked that when Janey showed up, people lived longer. She’d be hired for days that stretched into weeks and often turned into months. She cooked for her patients and bathed them, too. She laughed with them as they thumbed through old photo albums, and she nodded silently by their beds when they needed to talk about their fears and regrets. She went to her own grave with their secrets.

It is not an exaggeration to say my mother loved her patients. That’s the word she always used when she talked about the elderly people she tended. “You can’t help it,” she once told me. “You always end up loving the people who need you.” In that way, she was not unique among home care workers. So often, they come into a home as strangers and leave as family.

This is not to romanticize home care providers or the work they do. It’s a tough job, and not everyone embraces it as God’s work. Still, most of the people I’ve met who do these jobs are, indeed, committed to providing good care. They’re also shamefully underpaid. In most states, they don’t even make minimum wage.

The U.S. Department of Labor is poised to do something about that. It may eliminate a 28-year-old exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act so that home care workers receive minimum wage and overtime pay.

An estimated 2.5 million people, mostly women, are home care workers. This change in the rule could affect two-thirds of them, say Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, the authors of Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State. However, as they pointed out in an op-ed for The New York Times, the proposed rule change has powerful enemies:

The existing exemption mainly serves home-care franchises, an $84 billion industry that is one of the most profitable in the United States. Congressional Republicans and industry representatives like the National Association for Home Care and Hospice invoke the debates of the 1970s to defend a rule that allows the industry to squeeze additional hours of unpaid labor from ‘companions.’

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, introducing two bills to stop the changes, claims his legislation “will ensure these vulnerable (patients) continue to receive excellent care in the comfort of their homes and help protect the jobs of America’s caregivers.” Senate Republicans, led by Mike Johanns of Nebraska, want to permanently codify exempted “companionship services” to include “meal preparation, bed making, washing of clothes, errands” and “assistance with incontinence and grooming.”

Because nothing on that list is real work — to these Republicans in Congress, I mean.

I’m tempted to say this feels personal because of what my mother did for a living, but, really, how is this not personal for all of us?

It’s only a matter of time before you or someone you love will need help from home care workers. When you watch them in action, as I did most recently in the last weeks of my mother-in-law’s life, you know them to be skilled but also incredibly kind. It is a humbling moment indeed when you realize just how much you’ve come to depend on the committed, nonjudgmental care of strangers.

From an economic justice perspective, we can agree that every worker should be paid a fair wage for his or her labor. We also can come at this strictly from a place of self-interest. Show of hands, please: How many of you want exploited workers performing the most intimate care for your loved ones? How about for you?

In her last year, at 61, my mother prayed that her employer — a bank vice president whose terminally ill mother was dependent on Mom’s care for eight to 10 hours a day — would increase her hourly wage without benefits. She was asking for 25 cents.

“She wanted to know why I deserved it, so I made a list of everything I do,” my mother told me. “She said she’d think about it.”

Raise denied.

Mom took care of that woman’s mother until she died.

For me, home care workers’ pay is personal.

Live long enough and it will be personal for you, too.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (con.schultz@yahoo.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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