“Do you know about direct care workers?”
That’s the question we settle on at our table at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, as people stream by in the big Social Action tent where we set up shop from Friday, September 20, though Sunday the 22nd.
The answers are as varied as the people, “Yes, I am one.”
“Oh sure. We had someone coming to the house when Mom was sick.”
“No. Tell me about them.”
“Not really. But I’m a teacher/social worker/therapist/doctor/nurse/therapist and I support what you guys do.”
“No. But we need someone to take care of Dad. How would we go about doing that?”
For many years the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has hosted the Common Ground Fair. It has goats, chickens, donkeys and oxen. It has sheep herding demonstrations with border collies scurrying happily in the arena. It has soap making and weaving. You can buy honey, maple syrup, lamb’s wool sweaters and solar collectors. There are lots of children with painted faces and people speaking about sustainability. There’s music. It is Maine the way life should be.
It is also a very popular attraction, so we decided we should be there, representing Direct Care Alliance of Maine, the national DCA, and our profession. Helen Hansen, our stalwart chairperson, has signed up to be there every day. Julie Moulton, who’s an experienced volunteer at the fair, brings the table in her pick-up truck, helps set up on Thursday night and pops over throughout the weekend so the table volunteers can sneak out for lemonade once in a while. The rest of the slots on our schedule are filled in by Roy Gedat, DeeDee Strout, Ted Rippy, Cathy Bouchard, Roberta Record and me.
I repeat the quote from Margaret Mead often, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that has.”
We have our Direct Care Alliance banner hanging on the tent wall. We have doodle pads leaning against the front of the table, with “Do you mean to tell me the people who do the hardest work make the least amount of money?” and “What is the true cost of caring for each other?” written in big red marker.
Spread out on our table are the DCA membership letter, the DCA Voices Institute letter, a recruiting letter for a Voices Institute in Maine in April 2014 and the Major Victory for Direct Care Workers announcement that the Fair Labor Standards Act will now provide minimum wage and overtime protection to home care workers. We have two bright blue DCA t-shirts to raffle off each day and, most importantly, the signup sheet: the list of names, addresses and e-mails of people who agree they want to be connected with us.
We are eager for new members. We are eager for people to come to Augusta once a month and join us at our Leadership Council meetings. We are eager for people to visit the national DCA website and read real stories about direct care workers. We are eager for people to talk to their co-workers, legislators and community members, to make it clear that direct care workers deserve to be trained, paid and supported well enough that we can make a living.
We talk about the credential and our desire to create a career path where direct care workers are paid more based on experience and training and if you change jobs you don’t have to start back at entry level wages. We talk about the new health care law and the irony that many direct care workers can’t afford health care for themselves and their families. We talk about working conditions and respect.
We hear stories. “The turnover rate is terrible.” “We have 25 residents for two CNAs and they tell us we’re lucky.” “I’ve been there for seven years and I’m still making $9.84 an hour.”
We also get, “If you raise wages for workers then who can afford care?” and “What’s the difference between you and a union?” And their tone of voice makes it clear they don’t like unions. We tell them we do not believe that giving direct care workers a livable wage will substantially raise the overall cost of health care—and it will make the care better. We also explain that the purpose of DCA is to create a better understanding of how valuable direct care workers are and to train them to advocate for themselves, but we don’t bargain with employers. We are not a union. But these are complicated questions, and not everyone is convinced.
Over the course of three days the sun shines and then it pours rain and then it’s fine again. On Sunday it’s slow because of the rain – but that gives us even more time to listen. I hear people talk about back pain, reimbursement rates, sexual harassment or the way music can help people with dementia to remember who they are. I love this part.
How many direct care workers have long ago realized that listening is a sacred act?
The message we repeat over and over is we can care for each other—if we truly want to. The United States is a rich and generous nation. Help us to have the skills we need to do our jobs and make enough money so we can have a home and raise our children. That is not too much to ask.
Over three days the signup sheets get filled, by those who want to join us now, or may join us later, or will pass on the word to someone who would be interested or are just glad we’re doing this.
As we pack up the boxes on Sunday evening, tired and hoarse from all the talking, we feel a great sense of accomplishment. Helen will put the names on a spreadsheet and we’ll be in touch. Just maybe, this past weekend will be a milestone in the growth of a passionate and effective organization of direct care workers in the state of Maine.
We can hope.