Issued June 17, 2020
Washington, D.C.- As the country faces a national reckoning over the systemic racism that has penetrated the simultaneous crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the senseless violence targeting Black people, home care workers are taking action to address the racial injustices plaguing their own profession. On Friday, June 19, celebrated as Juneteenth to mark the emancipation of all slaves, scores of home care workers will launch a voter registration drive of fellow caregivers and home care consumers. The drive is part of a national effort to form an active and visible voting bloc to elect leaders who support a more just long term care system and good union home care jobs for all.
The worker-led Juneteenth voter registration outreach is part of SEIU’s largest voter engagement program in the union’s history to turn out infrequent Black, Latino and Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in eight battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.
Home care workers, 87 percent of whom are women and more than half are women of color, have been overlooked for their vital role in the COVID-19 response, helping those at highest risk--our nation’s seniors and loved ones with disabilities--with daily activities to live safely and independently at home. As positive cases of coronavirus continue to climb, many home care workers still lack personal protective equipment and basic benefits like paid sick and family leave. Many are left with the gut-wrenching choice between continuing to work if they fall ill, thereby potentially exposing their vulnerable clients, or not getting paid and facing eviction.
"My great grandmother was a slave, so Juneteenth is a very personal and emotional day for me, which I devote to service to others," said Lauralyn Clark, who has been a home care worker for over 20 years in Richmond, Va., and has had to survive on wages of about $8.50 an hour with no healthcare, paid sick days or other benefits. She was recently evicted after her client was hospitalized and she was left without a paycheck. "We celebrate Juneteenth as the day that freed Black people told the last slaves they were emancipated, and we're going to be sending a similar message in our voter registration drive by letting all home care workers know they are not alone, they are part of a national movement making our voices heard. This is the most important election of our lives because we need to get the right people into office so we can fix this deeply broken home care system."
The shameful devaluing of home care work is deeply rooted in systemic racism and sexism, and caregivers have been repeatedly excluded from many of the laws that protect other American workers, including some provisions in the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Dating back to slavery, Black women have cared for others’ family members without basic rights or just compensation. For example, home care workers were left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 as a concession to Southern lawmakers, whose constituents wanted to continue paying low wages to personal servants, many of them descendents of slaves. It wasn’t until 2015, after years of mobilization and advocacy by union members, that home care workers were extended FLSA overtime and minimum wage protections. Even today, hundreds of thousands of home care workers are excluded from federal laws that should protect them from racial discrimination or sexual harassment, and many lack the right to collectively bargain in 41 states.
COVID-19 has exposed realities home care workers face while working in the shadows of an overstretched and underfunded long term care system. Despite being one of the fastest growing professions, in large part due to the rapidly aging population, the median wage for home care workers is just $11.52 an hour and many cannot afford health insurance. In fact, 53 percent of home care workers are forced to rely on public assistance to survive.
“As a white woman, I wasn't a participant in the fight for racial justice before, and I feel my inaction has made me responsible," said Vicki Bickford, a home care worker and member of SEIU 775 in Vancouver, Washington who cares for a 70 year-old man who has suffered strokes. "But now, through my union, I've had the opportunity to get active and support fellow home care workers who are people of color. Racism and sexism have held the entire home care field down for too long, and the only way to fight back is through building unity across our differences. Fighting together, Black, brown, Asian and white members of our union have won $17 an hour in Washington state, along with affordable healthcare, paid days off, and paid job training. We want all home care workers to have these standards, and by voting together we can elect leaders who will prioritize quality home care, true equality, and good union jobs."
Inspired by the massive crowds of people across the nation demanding justice and equal opportunity for all to build a better life, the 740,000 home care workers who are united in SEIU are sparking a national movement. Home care workers are demanding a powerful union voice for all, including the two million non-union home care workers in the U.S., and an end to the historical injustices that are holding caregivers back and placing their communities, vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities at risk.
Home care workers across the country are joining together with the 740,000 home care providers represented by the Service Employees International Union to raise awareness of the rising demand for affordable long-term care. This movement of caregivers is calling on candidates at all levels to present policy solutions so seniors and people with disabilities have quality, affordable home care and all of the nation’s 2.8 million home care workers have good union jobs.