Care workers seek higher wages
Care workers seek higher wages
Tamara Nghishakenwa cares for her son, Bakari Bell, with the aid of a paycheck from the In-Home Supportive Services program. But she and other care workers say they need higher pay. Contributed photo.
Tamara Nghishakenwa’s son, Bakari Bell, 13, has severe autism. Alameda County pays her $11.50 an hour to take care of him through the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program, which seeks to save on the cost of caring for elderly and disabled people by caring for them in their homes instead of in nursing homes and other institutional settings.
But getting by on those wages is tough in the Bay Area, union representatives for Nghishakenwa and other home care workers like her say. So they’re rallying here and across the state to call attention to what they say are stagnating wages and proposals to cut hours that workers are eligible for pay.
The SEIU United Long Term Care Workers union represents 14,000 home-care workers in Alameda County who work 25 or more hours per month. Roughly half of those workers take care of family members, like Nghishakenwa.
“Let’s face it, it’s extremely difficult to get by in the Bay Area on $11.50 an hour,” said David Werlin, the union’s member strength director.
Ultimately, he said, the goal for home care workers is a living wage. In Alameda County, that would be at least $15 per hour, he said. The Alameda County care workers he represents haven't had a raise in five years.
“We don’t expect to achieve that this year, but it is a goal to move toward,” Werlin said.
Werlin said there are many cases like Nghishakenwa’s in Alameda County.
Bakari, 13, attends the Special Day Class at Lincoln Middle School. He has profound language and communication difficulties, and needs help with even the most basic daily tasks, such as bathing and dressing.
“I can’t even let him walk down the street by himself,” said Nghishakenwa. “He can’t cross a street. He gets to the corner and doesn’t know what to do unless I’m right there with him.”
In addition to her hourly pay, the family receives $300 a month through the Supplemental Security Income program, and child support from Bakari’s father. But that’s a lot less than Nghishakenwa, who has a real estate sales license, might otherwise be earning.
“I could be out there selling houses, but then I’d have to find someone and train them how to take care of Bakari, and the rate of pay is so low it’s hard to find capable, compassionate people to do the work,” she said.
Nghishakenwa’s wages are low enough to qualify her for a Section 8 housing voucher, which reduces her monthly rent from $1,475 to $918. But people who receive state disability payments aren’t eligible for food stamps, and food and other costs of caring for Nghishakenwa’s son are rising.
“The rising cost of food and clothing has really hit us hard,” she said. “Bakari is a growing teenager, and I no longer can shop for him in the children’s department – he’s wearing men’s clothes now.”
Only one kind of shoe works for Bakari, due to arch problems in one foot.
“Shoes are expensive, and like the rest of him,” she chuckled, “his feet keep on growing.”
Home care workers represented by the union have been without a contract since October. On May 27, home care workers rallied at the Alameda County Administration Building in downtown Oakland. Their next bargaining session with Alameda County is on June 17, and Werlin remains hopeful the Board of Supervisors will become more involved in negotiations.
Nghishakenwa recently attended a rally in Sacramento to urge Governor Jerry Brown to restore the 7 percent cut state lawmakers made to home care workers’ hours made during the recession and to protest a further reduction in hours that Brown has proposed in his May budget proposal. Currently, workers can be paid for up to 179 hours per month, but under the proposed budget for 2014-15, paid hours would be capped at 160 per month.
“It’s hard to understand why this is happening now that the state has a surplus,” she said.
Nghishakenwa said that while she looks forward to the day when she can work outside the home and make more money, she is grateful for the ability to care for her son.
“Being able to take care of Bakari has been such a blessing,” she said.
Nghishakenwa acknowledges that many challenges lie ahead as her son grows into adulthood.
“My faith, hope, and activism keep me going,” she said.