The 45,000 in-home and nursing home caregivers of SEIU 775 have always been on the front lines of health care. We’re the first ones to know if our clients are coughing or running a fever. We know when the person we care for seems dizzy, or when their appetite is off. We know first because we’re inside of their homes providing health care, preparing food, and cleaning surfaces, giving invaluable care to the most vulnerable people in our communities. We keep those who want to stay in their homes out of costly institutions, and care for those who require nursing home care to stay healthy.
Caregivers didn’t stop providing care during the coronavirus pandemic, despite a glaring lack of PPE in the first few months. Nelly, a caregiver in Yakima, lives with her client. When everyone in Nelly’s home, including Nelly, tested positive for COVID-19, she continued providing care and kept her vulnerable client out of the hospital.
The proposed Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) cuts would kick 10,000 seniors and people with disabilities off home care, and put more than 10,000 caregivers out of work when we can least afford to lose more jobs.
Caregiving is essential. Yet it has been consistently devalued because of systemic racism and sexism. Like farm workers and domestic workers, caregivers were deliberately excluded from the worker protection laws created after the Great Depression. We were excluded because of who we are and what we look like—predominantly women, including black women, women of color and immigrants. Caregivers had to fight to win basic standards like minimum wage, the right to a union, and even the right to protection from harassment and discrimination long after other workers won those rights.
When the coronavirus hit, the caregivers of our union immediately started negotiating with the state for COVID protections. We were the first caregivers in the country to win hazard pay. But everything we’ve won—not just hazard pay but our health care, our wages, and our jobs themselves—are at risk due to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.
There are about 30 million people unemployed in this country, including half a million people in Washington State. Millions more are risking their lives going to work every day—not just caregivers but grocery workers and farmworkers and delivery drivers—and these folks are often working for near poverty wages. Yet with looming budget shortfalls facing our state, what’s on the table for caregivers? Cuts. The state is trying to find revenue by proposing massive, devastating, offensive cuts.
The proposed Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) cuts would kick 10,000 seniors and people with disabilities off home care, and put more than 10,000 caregivers out of work when we can least afford to lose more jobs. The cuts to wages and benefits could result in a loss of $1,300 a year for a full-time caregiver. In nursing homes, perhaps the most dangerous place to be during a global pandemic, DSHS has proposed cutting funding by $240 million dollars per year.
The caregivers in our union have made immense progress in being treated like the professionals we are, and in challenging the racist systems that would hold us back. Now—when we are essential to the health of our clients, our communities, and our economy—is not a time to go backward. It is a time for policy makers to be discussing how to move us forward—how to provide health care coverage for our kids, to continue on a path to a living wage, to respect our role in the health care delivery system.
But elected officials are frozen in place. Nationally, the White House and Senate Republicans need to commit to providing funding to states to ensure caregiving and other essential services are funded. Here in Washington, our state legislators need to pass real revenue reform. It is unconscionable that a handful of people in our state are raking in billions of dollars during the pandemic while our most vulnerable citizens are at risk of losing everything.
But stopping the cuts is just the beginning. Every caregiver in our country needs access to a union, health care and a living wage. Joe Biden’s health care task force, which included SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and Seattle’s own Representative Pramila Jayapal, issued a plan to rebuild the economy that centers the importance of caregiving jobs. This plan would close waiting lists for home care, hire 700,000 more caregivers, give all caregivers access to a Union, health care, sick leave, and a living wage. The plan reflects what SEIU 775 members have been demanding for years—that caregivers be treated as the professionals we are, and that our clients and family members should have high quality care in the setting of their choice.
We can’t and won’t go backward. This year hasn’t shown us anything we didn’t already know deep inside. Our country has devalued care work because for too long the work of women, Black people, and people of color has been devalued. Now the path forward is clear—we must choose essential workers over billionaires, and we must rebuild our economy through investing in workers, not through cuts.
Sterling Harders is the president of SEIU 775, which represents more than 45,000 long-term care workers providing quality home care, nursing home care, and residential services in Washington and Montana.