– State Senator Patricia Jehlen & Lisa Gurgone, Home Care Aide Council
On April 8, Pay Equity Day, we again observed that women earn, on average, 79 percent of men’s pay. One reason is that “women’s work” — caring for the sick, elders, and young children — is far underpaid given the skill, effort and responsibility required.
When work doesn’t pay enough to support a family, it hurts the worker, but also her children who may grow up in poverty. And, since she can’t save enough to live in retirement, she will face further impoverishment and more dependence on family supports, government programs, and other assistance.
Consider home care aides. Women make up over 85% of the workforce which cares for the elderly in their homes. Home care aides in Massachusetts earned on average $12.72 an hour or $26,465 annually (most of the positions are part-time).
For example, Kim is a 31 year old home care aide and mother of three children from Fall River. Kim has been married for 10 years but has been the sole breadwinner for her family since her husband became disabled 5 years ago. Kim’s family lives in a two-bedroom apartment and owns one car, which she needs for work. On nice days, she will stop by her home and pick up her family so they can get to the park and enjoy the outdoors. She will go back in-between patients to bring them back home. Kim’s annual income last year was $20,555. She often thinks about leaving home care so she can better support her family, but the thought of giving up what she loves leaves her feeling empty. Kim says the greatest sacrifice is that she doesn’t spend the time she’d like with her children because of all the hours she works.
The low pay also hurts the people who depend on these workers for their care. Seniors who need help to stay safely in the community need home care workers. As boomers age and the senior population grows, the need for home care workers grows too. We hear of the need for high-tech workers, but the greatest number of new jobs is in human services. Personal Care Aides rank #2 and Home Health Aides #3 on the US Department of Labor list of the 30 Fastest Growing Occupations. According to recent US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the projected need for new direct-care workers will exceed the number of women aged 25-54 entering the labor force by 28%.
If the demand for home care workers continues to outstrip the number of people willing to do this important work, more people will end up in institutional care, at more expense and with less independence. Even those who get care could face staff turnover. Between 2008 and 2018, the demand for home care aides in Massachusetts is expected to increase by over 30%, in contrast to overall job growth of 3%. Home care aides already have one of the highest job vacancy rates of all healthcare occupations in Massachusetts. Yet while the demand for home care services continues to grow, most home care agencies lose 50-60% of their new workforce within the first 6 months of employment.
When companies want to attract the best and the brightest to be their CEOs, the sky is the limit on compensation. It will be expensive to pay home care workers and others a living wage. But if we want to attract and retain talented, skilled and caring people, if we want something for our children and our elders and ourselves, we will demand that all workers — including those doing the traditionally women’s work of caregiving — are paid enough to support themselves and their families.