Home care workers, clients deserve better from state

State budget cuts are driving poorly paid home care workers over the financial edge, while depriving their clients of needed services. It's time to look at the special-interest tax breaks that contribute to the difficulties.

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Home care worker Glenda Faatoafe helps a client.

State budget cuts are driving poorly paid home care workers over the financial edge, while depriving their clients of needed services. It's time to look at the special-interest tax breaks that contribute to the difficulties.

For years, our state’s 43,000 poorly paid home care workers have lived right on the edge of insolvency. Now, harsh new rounds of state budget cuts threaten to push them over that edge entirely.

Home care workers care workers do an important — and difficult — job. They assist vulnerable low-income seniors and people with disabilities to stay in their homes by helping them dress, clean, bathe, eat, shop, and remember to take their medications. For this work they are paid an average of $10.37 per hour, with the terms set by a contract with the state. While they are publicly funded, unlike state employees they have no pension and can purchase health care only for themselves — not for their families.

That low wage level is more than $3 per hour less than a living wage, and leaves very little margin for these workers. Yet since 2009 home care hours have been arbitrarily slashed by an average of 15 percent (including a 10 percent cut that went into effect on Jan. 1) with some vulnerable seniors losing more than 25 percent of the help they require. If these cuts in home care stand, the consequences for highly vulnerable seniors in need of assistance — and for the workers who provide their care — will be nothing short of devastating.

A new report titled “Who Cares?” documents the results of extensive research into the plight of Washington’s home care workers. Based on surveys and focus groups of more than 1,500 workers, it finds that home care workers are little better off than the poor clients they serve. Some of the results are little short of shocking:

  • More than 30 percent of home care workers, nearly 13,000 people and their families, live below the federal poverty line. Their average family income for these workers is a mere $11,579 a year.
  • Others do a little better, but the average household income for care workers is well below $30,000 per year.
  • Unsurprisingly, many report that they cannot even meet their basic needs at the end of every month.
  • In fact, fully 19 percent — nearly one in five — are forced to rely on public assistance like food stamps or subsidized housing, a number that has doubled since 2005.

Imagine how much more difficult it is to care for a seriously ill senior or person with disabilities when you are not sure how you are going to be able to feed your own kids that night? Imagine how these workers feel when our state’s voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative requiring adequate training for home care workers, yet the legislature ignored the will of the voters and never provided the funding? Is it any wonder, given how little we seem to value the important contribution these workers provide in helping those in need, that the turnover rate for home care workers now ranges between 34 percent and 57 percent a year?

With our elderly population projected to double by 2030, the need for skilled care workers is going to rise rapidly. But with home care wages falling further and further behind inflation, and already limited benefits being sharply reduced — these workers receive no paid time off for sickness or other emergencies, and health care premiums for many have risen by 50 percent -- we are going to find it nearly impossible to recruit and train the thousands of dedicated individuals we need to take on this work.

As the economy has nosedived, a lot of people seem to be looking for scapegoats. Public-sector workers have come under relentless attack, even though the real blame for our current economic woes rest squarely at the feet of Wall Street titans. Home care workers are not state employees, but they are publicly funded workers, and they have demonstrated a willingness to do their part. In January, these workers agreed to a new contract that includes concessions reducing state costs by $35 million over the next two years, or 65 percent of the gains awarded in the contract awarded by an arbitrator in November, but the state continues to slash their hours.

The pain of our current budget problems needs to be distributed evenly. It’s simply not right that we demand low-wage workers and low-income seniors and others with disabilities tighten their belts, or give up the care they need, when we ask nothing of wealthy corporate interests.

We even continue to give out a $100 million a year special tax break to the same out-of-state banks that created the current economic mess, even as those banks report record profits. That alone would be enough to restore the cuts to home care, and protect a system that used to be recognized as a model for the nation. There are currently 567 special interest tax breaks on the books in Washington state, with more added every year.

That is nonsensical, and this tendency in Olympia to cater to wealthy interests at the expense of working people needs to change. Otherwise, balancing our state budget will not be an exercise in shared sacrifice. Rather, it will amount to little more than class warfare directed at those least able to absorb the blow.


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