On a Treadmill Going Backward: Surviving on a Home Care Worker’s Wages

The following is an edited excerpt from a journal I kept in October 2004 about life as a home care worker in Augusta, Maine.

Beat_up_carTwo days ago, I pulled the ligament under my kneecap at a client’s home, catching my foot on a plastic rug. Then my car started to make “dentist drill” noises and my mechanics told me I needed to replace the pulleys on the alternator. I squeezed another 12 miles onto the odometer before I felt a change in the power steering, letting me know the alternator wasn’t doing its job. Welcome to the home care worker’s biggest nightmare: Lack of wheels!

I reflected on my need for transportation as I took a taxi to work yesterday. Basically, my car is used for business transportation. “Drive to work, work to drive,” as a friend used to say.   To save money, I do all my errands on my way home from an elder’s house. Of the thousands of miles on my old car, I have probably logged about a thousand traveling for pleasure, usually to see family and friends. The rest were all spent driving to and from my clients’ homes. 

If I worked in an office, my equipment would be provided for me. I would not have to supply the computer, desk, chair or phone needed to do my job. A car is a big expense, no matter how old it is when you buy it–and the older it is, the more it costs to keep it going. We home care workers must be thrifty people, because we are underpaid and underemployed. My hours are constantly shifting, but they hardly ever add up to 40 hours or more a week. I never get paid for my travel time or expenses, and now I have to pay extra for taxis. One couple I work with lives eight miles away, an $11 ride in the taxi.

Yesterday, I picked up 3 extra hours that someone else was assigned but couldn’t commit to. I anticipated about $30 extra in my take home pay. Today also started out well. I was assigned twice as many hours as usual–8 and a quarter hours in three separate shifts, starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m. I was to spend my normal four hours in the morning with the couple, then go to another client’s home for an hour and fifteen minutes, then back to the couple for another three hours.

But when I got ready to leave the couple’s home and told the wife that I had another elder to go to before coming back at 3 pm, she asked her husband if they needed me. They agreed they would eat cereal for the evening meal I usually prepare, so I didn’t need to come back. Losing those three hours canceled out the three extra hours I worked yesterday. That is always the story when you live in poverty: as soon as you get a little extra money in one hand, something happens and the money is taken out of the other hand. There is never any extra cash to put in savings for a rainy day, or to spend on fun.

Ever since my fall, I’ve been favoring the knee I fell on. That has aggravated my other leg, which I have been favoring for five years due to arthritis. I have been taking aspirin every four hours to manage the pain, but my aspirin is running low and will only cover another day. There is no longer a convenience store within walking distance of my home, so I will have to take a taxi to the store, a $4.50 round trip.  I’ve spent $22 getting to work and back and now I need more taxi service.

Twenty dollars usually covers a whole week of driving in my car, but what choice do I have? Public transportation in Augusta is a joke, and a rental car would cost $35 a day plus gas.

As I tried to fall asleep, I heard the sound of the cash register ring in the back of my mind–the sound my Quicken computer program makes when I record a transaction. Can I ever get more money into my cash register, so that sound doesn’t fill me with dread? The cost of the repair to my car was $202.31. I have very little control over my life.

My opportunities are limited, and my schedule fluctuates along with the health of the people I care for, who are growing older and weaker every day. There is no economic security because of the unpredictability of the profession. The rising cost of living has pushed us caregivers into a subculture of survival, and the constant struggle to cover basic needs makes our lives very harsh. I feel like I’m on a treadmill that’s going backward.