Loretta Copeland, 81, of Harlem, needs home care five days a week. Aides help her move, bathe, cook, and sleep safely — all the while assuaging her loneliness. Yet due to New York’s home care labor shortages, currently the worst in the nation, Copeland gets support only one or two days a week. “Sometimes I feel angry. I worked all my life, and now I can’t even get help. That bothers me.”
COVID-19 deepened the chasms of inequality in New York, particularly for givers and receivers of care. Leaders’ negligent approach to the pandemic ravaged the state’s nursing homes, killing upwards of 15,000 residents. Hundreds of thousands of high-risk, older, or disabled residents, who rely on home care instead of institutions, currently contend with a nearly 20 percent shortfall in labor. And hundreds of thousands of home care workers are under compensated and exhausted.
This week, in testimony before a joint legislative budget hearing and on a call with Inequality.org, New York Caring Majority Coalition leader Bobbie Sackman spoke in plain terms: “We’re an aging society. We have more people with disabilities and illnesses because of COVID-19. We have family caregivers providing $31 billion of free care and they need help. And most importantly, we have home care workers – women of color and immigrant women–working for poverty-level wages. That is a state policy of neglect and the feminization of poverty. And it has to end now.”
Enter the Fair Pay for Home Care Act, tirelessly advocated by Sackman and Caring Majority. If included in the state’s 2023 budget, the law would mandate that home care workers earn 150 percent of the regional minimum wage. Currently, in many New York counties, home care workers earn a minimum wage of $13.20 an hour– less than they would make while working at McDonalds.
The “carefully written” legislation, Sackman explains, includes a funded mandate: a plan to set a minimum Medicaid reimbursement rate for providers, ensuring that home care agencies’ administrative costs and home care workers themselves are properly paid.
A March 2021 CUNY report concluded that the Act would annually net over $3.6 billion for the state and would quickly eliminate the labor shortage – generating tens of thousands of new jobs for a workforce that is currently 90 percent women, 67 percent immigrants, and 75 percent women of color. Investing in this workforce, the report concludes, would “advance racial and gender equity–while also generating large-scale economic benefits for the state.”
Advocates won majority support from the State’s Assembly and Senate, some Republicans included. But Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul has yet to accommodate Fair Pay for Home Care in the budget, which her team will finalize in the coming weeks. Instead, she has proposed one-time bonuses for care workers at a maximum of $3,000.
Caring Majority argues that bonuses are an insufficient fix, a “tiny bandage on a gaping wound.”
“You’re living with poverty level wages and a bonus is going to take you out of poverty? A bonus is going to attract you to this kind of work and keep you in this kind of work?” Sackman counters. Bonuses could also create benefits cliffs for their recipients, as an influx of cash can jeopardize eligibility for Section 8 housing, Medicaid, SNAP, and other forms of vital public assistance upon which a majority of the workforce relies.
The Coalition will continue to fight for fair pay over bonuses, for long-term investment over short-term infusion. But Sackman feels unprecedented momentum and opportunity. The national Build Back Better discourse has framed care work as vital infrastructure, New York has bountiful federal aid money in its coffers, and New York’s new woman Governor is eager to secure a positive legacy. “We want her to put the money where her sensibility is.”
Caring Majority and their allies (including the AARP, NAACP, 1199SEIU, ADAPT, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance) formed a women-led, intersectional movement, uplifting care workers as agents of an equitable future. Alongside Fair Pay for Home Care, the coalition will advocate a suite of supportive legislation, including the New York Health Act for single-payer healthcare and a Green New Deal for Home Care.
At a recent rally in Union Square, New York Attorney General Letitia James spoke to care workers everywhere: “The best way to demonstrate our love and commitment to all that you do is to show you some money: to address income inequality and the feminization of poverty with the stroke of a pen.”