Home Care Workers Rising

forest of signs 2The following photos and stories are from the Voices Institute graduates, several of whom were also DCA board members, who represented Direct Care Alliance and their profession at the Home Care Workers Rising summit. The summit was hosted by Caring Across Generations in St. Louis on October 6 and 7.

It Rekindled the Fight in Me

I was fortunate to be invited to the Home Care Workers Rising summit by the Direct Care Alliance board of directors. The summit brought together members of the SEIU, AFSCME, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, Hand in Hand, Caring Across Generations, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice to spark and rekindle the Home Care Worker fight for a job that is respected, pays a living wage, includes benefits and paid time off. We were home care workers and consumers, all sharing and learning what each other were doing in the fight to improve home care jobs. 

It was great to witness the energy and the power among the many home care workers and consumers at the summit. After thinking that perhaps home care workers were losing the fight, or the injustices surrounding the job could never be changed, it was very heartening for me to see that this was not the case at all.

(L to R) DCA's Meriam Jawhar, Tracy Dudzinski, Noel Mendez, David Moreau, Helen Hanson, Timothy Doe and Karla Lawrence

(L to R) DCA’s Meriam Jawhar, Tracy Dudzinski, Noel Mendez, David Moreau, Helen Hanson, Timothy Doe and Karla Lawrence.

On the personal level, it was so good to see and spend some time with my DCA colleagues and fellow Voices Institute graduates, the people I consider friends. I kept thinking of Leonila Vega while I was there, thinking that she is witnessing this Worker Rising and how proud she would be. She fully understood the need for direct care workers to use their own voice and tell their own stories. One part of the summit was devoted to developing our own story and then how to share it and use it in our advocacy and lobbying for better working conditions. This was something we learned at the VI. Leonila would have been pleased to see this gathering of workers and consumers, coming together to share what they are doing and learn from each other in the fight for better home care jobs. I kept thinking that because of Leonila, my life has been enriched by the people I have met and advocated with through Direct Care Alliance. For that, I am very grateful.

A theme that I lifted up from the stories told by others around me was that the storytellers had no prior knowledge or experience with home care until they starting caregiving for a family member. One gentlemen from California shared that he was a plumber and his wife a nurse. They had a great income until tragedy struck. Their daughter got sick, then his wife suffered a stroke. The family had the usual struggles with health insurance but had the means to pay their deductibles and co-pays thanks to his business success. Within a few years, though, their savings and assets became depleted. He sold his business for the money the sale provided and to become a full-time caregiver for his wife. I asked him if he had ever thought about home care or the people that do the actual caregiving in the home of an elder or someone with disabilities before tragedy struck his own family. His response was no. This happens so often. People do not know about home care or the workers providing the care until something happens in their world and they are exposed to it. One way to raise awareness is to start talking about it, talking about home care with anyone who will listen; family, friends, co-workers, elected officials, organizations and groups that work on social issues, anyone who will listen. Start sharing our stories to raise awareness about home care jobs.

Karla Tim Helen TracyThe fight for home care jobs that are respected, pay a livable wage, and provide benefits and paid time off is far from over. Although I am in the middle of a career change, I am looking for opportunities in my own state to continue advocating for the improvement of home care jobs and long-term care. I want to thank the DCA board of directors for this wonderful opportunity to attend the summit and see my DCA colleagues again. It was just what I needed to rekindle the fight in me.

–Helen Hanson is an advocate for direct care workers in Maine and a Voices institute graduate. She worked for years as a CNA and home care aide

Because of Home Care Workers Rising…

(L to R) Karla Lawrence, Ai-jen Poo and Timothy Doe

(L to R) Karla Lawrence, Ai-jen Poo and Timothy Doe

After attending the Home Care Workers Rising summit October 6 and 7, I was back working with people with developmental disabilities in Lewiston, Maine by 8am on October 8.  I took Toby and Donnie to sort boxes at the Food Bank and brought Marcel to Wal-Mart to pick up his new glasses.  I helped him drink coffee at Dunkin Donuts – four creams and four sugars.  He drinks it through a straw.  I hold the cup for him.

At home I went with my beautiful 16-year-old daughter to an open mic at the Emporium in Readfield.  She sang “The Wind Beneath My Wing” for a friend of hers who was hurt in a car accident.  On Thursday I went with her to college night at the high school.  On Saturday I read poetry with my group “The Beet Poets of Wayne, Maine.”  It’s a good life and I know how lucky I am.  Yesterday I cleaned the chimney and finished stacking the wood for the winter.

I am deeply grateful to the National Domestic Workers Alliance for inviting me to attend Home Care Workers Rising as a representative of Direct Care Alliance.  I love going to conferences.  It was a pleasure walking around downtown St. Louis.  But even more important, I need the connection to others who understand what I do.  I need to hold their hands and hear their voices – people from dynamic organizations all over the world – NDWA, Caring Across Generations, Hand in Hand, Jobs with Justice, AFSCME and SEIU.

Members of the DCA group with Ai-jen Poo (at right)

Members of the DCA group with Ai-jen Poo (at right).

Because of Home Care Workers Rising I was deeply moved hearing Ai-Jen Poo speak.  Ai-Jen is so clear and powerful.  When you listen to her, you know that people who care for others will be respected and valued.  It will happen.  I have taken her words home with me.

And I have taken home Chuck Brown’s story.  Here’s what I remember him telling our table during the Storytelling Plenary.  He was a plumber in California; his wife was a nurse.  They made $180,000 a year.  Then their 14-year-old daughter came down with lupus – a bad kind.  The wife stayed home to care for the daughter – but then she had a stroke herself.  41-year-old woman.  Chuck ends up working full time as their caregiver, making $9.50 an hour, and sees life very differently.  But even so it took him a couple of years to join the union.  Now he’s a passionate advocate in Ventura County.

Every day home care workers see different versions of this story, good people who need help through no fault of their own.  Every American knows it could happen to anyone of us.  What a great relief it would be if we all knew we’ll be taken care of.  We can do that.  We can create a health care system where everyone is provided thoughtful, efficient and self directed support.  That will return great value to our economy and even greater value to our anxious, hurting spirit.

Because of Home Care Workers Rising I will think about that – how we have to value the people who know what to do when someone is having a seizure, who can recognize when someone’s blood sugar is low, who know how to clean a colostomy bag and are willing to show up every day and stay until the work is done.

Because of Home Care Workers Rising I will think about how I am part of a team with the strong, brown Filipino women in their brightly colored T-shirts that I rode in the elevator with in the Renaissance Hotel.  You give them fifteen dollars an hour and they’ll spend it on their children and their grandchildren.  They’ll use it to give them good houses, good food and good education – which will in turn, make good, safe communities in our country.

Timothy Doe

Timothy Doe

Because of Home Care Workers Rising I was able to talk about my job with my roommate Timothy Doe. Timothy is from Togo.  He’s lived for a long time in Arizona, working with people with developmental disabilities.  Now he manages group homes.  He tells me he used to show up at a house at noontime and find the residents still in their pajamas.  When he left one home, staff from there would call staff at the other homes to warn them he was coming.

I tell him I work with people who work hard but are always doing things I don’t approve of.  For example, a consumer asks, “Where’s Troy?” and a staff person answers, “He’s behind the couch.”  She repeats it until the consumer looks behind the couch and everyone laughs.

“Oh no, no, no,” Timothy says with his lovely, gentle voice, “there is a law against that.  You must teach them it is not right.”

Of course he is right.  But where does the calm, clearheaded energy needed to do that come from?

Because of the Home Care Workers Rising summit I have been given a share of the strength, story, voice and heart of every person I met there.  I will use that strength when I ache all over and still have six hours to go in my shift, or when I try to calmly speak up about something and it gets all confused and turned back on me.  I will remember the statue of Dred Scott and his wife in front of the old courthouse a few blocks from the arch.   In 1846, he applied there for his rights as a citizen – and 11 years later he was denied them by the Supreme Court of the United States.

I will need the connection to others who understand that what I do is important.

Thank you, National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations.

–David Moreau has been working with adults with developmental disabilities in Maine since 1979. He is a graduate of the Voices Institute.

The Time Was Right
Karla and SEIU man with signWell, well, well. Couple of weeks ago, I was telling my wife Hannah that I feel ready to return to the fight after taking some time off to handle some personal struggles. It was just a few days later that I received the email invitation to attend the Home Care Workers Rising summit. I told Hannah about the invite and without hesitation, added that I must go. That timing must mean something, I said. So I booked my hotel room and my flights, excitedly. Very excitedly. I could not wait to reconnect with the folks from the Direct Care Alliance and the other Voices Institute grads, and to meet all the other great leaders, advocates and home care workers who would be attending.

Now, whoever decided on St. Louis really hit it out of the park. St. Louis? Gateway Arch? Think about it. One could hardly find another monument anywhere that so fittingly represents and symbolizes our mission and the pivotal place where we find ourselves and our movement. A portal through which all home care workers rise to challenge and conquer the injustices endured for decades. A symbol of our determination and ingenuity.

It is indeed very difficult to describe the intensity at the summit. The passion: deep. The emotion: intense. The determination: undefeatable. The support:  unshakeable. The unity: amazing. It was historic and momentous. Sharing our stories, learning from each other, recognizing outstanding achievement, arching side by side, singing, chanting, laughing, crying. With each other and for each other. And did I mention eating? What great food for all. No box lunches here.  All becoming one. Me becoming we.

Thank you, DCA. Thank you NDWA. Thanks Caring Across Generations. Thank you SEIU. Thanks to all the associations and individuals for guidance and leadership and empowerment to those who care for those in need. Team DCA rocks! I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of sharing and learning with you all.

Noel Mendez is a field supervisor at a home care agency in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a graduate of the Voices Institute.

We Cannot be Ignored Any More

I felt very privileged to have been included in this action.

Meriam (center) and colleagues

Meriam (center) and colleagues

Here in New Mexico, I am an advocate for people with disabilities. In addition, I recently took on a job with a private client who is a paraplegic and who requires 24-hour care. I do one 15-hour shift per week. I am fortunate in that my employer is well voiced in the rights of home care workers and respects the work that they do. Throughout his life, he was an advocate for workers’ rights and the rights of people with disabilities, and I think has always understood the value of his personal assistants, who enable him to survive at home, school or work with.  However, most home care workers are not so well appreciated.

The need for better awareness of and appreciation for home care workers has become paramount as demand increases. The statistics are eye-opening. As Ai-jen Poo of Caring Across Generations often points out, every eight seconds an American is turning 65. And I say no, we will not have a big enough pool of trained knowledgeable individuals who want to do this work unless we address these issues:

  • Low pay rates, no benefits, and their impact on the lives of workers and their families;
  • Unfair employment arrangements and employers who fail to comply with employment agreements;
  • Dangerous or unsupportive working conditions, a sky-high rate of on-the-job injuries, and lack of access to affordable health care;
  • Physical and emotional abuse at work
  • A general lack of respect for home care workers

The Home Care Workers Rising summit was a really well-organized effort to bring attention to these issues. Representative of the SEIU, AFSCME, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, Hand in Hand, Caring Across Generations, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice came together to examine these issues collectively and to move this occupation into the 21st century, starting by holding feet to the fire on the passage and enforcement of the Fair Standard Labor Standards Act for home care workers. Speakers, trainings, and personal stories all supported this effort and brought light to these issues.

Meriam (second from L) goofing off with Tim, Tracy and Karla

Meriam (second from L) goofs off with Tim, Tracy and Karla.

I am fortunate to have had some exposure in the effort to pass the changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act through The Direct Care Alliance and its Voices Institute, which was started by the late Leonila Vega. The Voices Institute trained caregivers from all over the country and prepared them with the skills and information needed to stand up for their rights as direct care workers. This summit was the perfect opportunity to reinforce those trainings and translate them into action.

Now is the time to recognize the home care worker as a valued employee, to recognize that there is nothing more important than having a solid, well trained workforce, ready and willing to meet the growing demand from our aging baby boomers and younger people with disabilities, including vets returning from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. This very important work cannot be ignored any more–and neither can we! We home care workers must and will be included when people meet to talk about how to change this industry, so we can take our rightful place as a dignified, well paid, and respected part of our health care and personal assistance workforce.

–Meriam Jawhar is a disabilities advocate and home care worker in New Mexico and a graduate of the Voices Institute.

This Is Just the Beginning

What fun the DCA contingent had! (We were always the loudest table.) Thank you, Direct Care Alliance, Caring Across Generations, and all my colleagues who made the summit such an inspiring event.

Tracy (fist raised) with fellow Wisconsites.

Tracy (fist raised) with fellow Wisconsites.

I just know in my heart that this is not an ending for DCA. It is just the beginning. The movement will continue and, through partnerships with other organizations, it will grow. What Leonila started did not die with her.  Leonila planted the seeds in us Voices Institute graduates, and, to quote the saying that was inscribed on the fireplace mantle at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin, where the VI was held: The roots will thrive. We will carry on in her honor and continue to fight until we see her dream become a reality.

FIGHT ON!!!!

–Tracy Dudzinski is a home care worker and the board chair of her worker-owned home care cooperative in Wisconsin. She is also a graduate of the Voices Institute and the chair of DCA’s board of directors.