By James Anderson
Patricia O’Hara had just finished caring for a man suffering from Parkinson’s disease and was waiting for the train to take her back to Brooklyn when she explained why she got into the home care industry.
Her father also had Parkinson’s. Before O’Hara’s dad died in December 2008, she accompanied him as he navigated the US health care system, trying to get quality treatment covered at affordable cost.
O’Hara herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2006. When she discussed with friends her struggle to get cancer treatments covered, she said her friends would always comment they thought she had good insurance. She “thought so too,” she would add, until she got sick.
“A lot of times you have to fight to get what you need,” she said.
O’Hara, who works for Partners in Care, a private home care service with an office in Manhattan, became a member of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest healthcare union in the nation, as soon as she was eligible to join.
She and 1199SEIU have been engaged for some time now in the Fight for 15, the nationwide campaign to obtain a living wage of $15 an hour for workers in the service industries and other occupations where wages have stagnated.
From precariously employed adjunct professors, to airport personnel and Wal-Mart clerks, the campaign cuts across large sections of the underpaid working class, including the 60,000 workers who walked off their jobs in more than 200 cities last April to demand a higher minimum wage.
While several cities and municipalities across the country have passed legislation mandating a living wage, 1199SEIU wants to make New York the first state to enact a statewide $15 per hour law.
O’Hara makes $10 an hour, which the SEIU says is standard pay for the more than 200,000 home care workers in the greater New York City area.
Prior to being diagnosed with cancer and before her father’s illness worsened, both of which prompted her occupational shift, O’Hara made more money. She worked for 25 years in the fashion industry. When people ask her for details about her previous job, she asks them if they have seen the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.”
“Well I was Anne Hathaway,” she explains.
While receiving cancer treatments early on, O’Hara said she kept telling herself it was all a bad dream. She realized, though, that she couldn’t continue to work in the high-paced fashion business.
After several rounds of chemotherapy, some radiation and then more chemo, she started to recover. O’Hara has been cancer free since 2007.
Her own health care treatment left her wanting to provide similar services, she said. The economic crisis of 2007-09 drastically reduced employment opportunities, however. She said she could not find a job doing administrative work in health care, probably because of her fashion background. Once she started at Partners In Care, she said, it was clear this line of work was far more rewarding, if also more of a struggle, than fashion.
The job can vary appreciably depending on the client. Some are bedridden and require constant assistance. Some just do not want to be left alone.
A government projections report released several years ago noted the number of people over age 65 in New York is expected to increase 44 percent from the number living there in 2000 to the number projected to live in the city by 2030. Home care, or caretaker work, is one of the fastest growing jobs in the state as a result, with increased demands transferred onto the workers.
O’Hara said 12 hour days are not uncommon. Nor are live-in arrangements. Overnight stays are also routine.
Mary Ellen Gibbs, 56, a home care worker employed by ElderServe, said her job duties consist of taking those she is assisting to appointments with their doctors, helping to keep them active and engaged in conversation, playing cards if they want to and interacting in such a way that makes their day more pleasant.
Unlike O’Hara, Gibbs, only recently became active with the union.
Like O’Hara, however, she experienced life trauma that led her to pursue a home care career and, the last few months, engage in the Fight for 15.
Having worked as a hairstylist for most of her adult life, she was out of work for three years after falling down a flight of stairs when it snowed outside and the elevator in her apartment was out.
At 49, she broke her shoulder and lost everything.
“I found myself home with no insurance or anything,” she said, “and I had to crawl on the floor and take care of myself. I had to reinvent myself and become this” – a home care worker – “because at 50 years old nobody is going to hire you. They say that they don’t discriminate, but at 50 years old, you apply online and people don’t see you and they don’t know how good you are.”
Her rent increased from $750 per month in 2004 to $1,510 per month at present. Gibbs, who lives in the Bronx, still makes $10 an hour, $11 on weekends.
“You would think at this point in my life I would be able to start relaxing, enjoying my life,” she said. “I’m working harder now than I ever did in my life.”
She has to keep plugging, she said, or she will get a call from landlord with an eviction notice. Or she will be taken to court for failing to pay the bills she often falls behind on now.
Higher wages for home care works have been shown to lead to greater retention of qualified staff, while low wages have been shown to undermine the continuity of patient relationships professionals consider critical for quality care.
Sometimes Gibbs, O’Hara and others help the elderly transition out of often more expensive nursing home living. They also make it possible for people to continue living in their own homes and eschew more costly nursing home options.
“Doesn’t everyone deserve a quality of life?” – O’Hara asked the question about those receiving care services, but New Yorkers claim the same could apply to the underpaid people providing that care too.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement made waves in New York back in 2011, many of the people who would send organizers in Zuccotti recordings or statements about why they were the “99%” worked in jobs like Gibbs and O’Hara. The people sending in clips and comments emphasized how they really wanted to work in a job where they could care for people, but they could not even care for themselves or their families because employers pay so little in those jobs.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose mother was a care worker, has spoken about the situation with SEIU members and voiced support for their struggle.
State Senator Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference in New York, recently called the labor of long-term caretakers “God’s work.”
Dave Bates, the Communications Director for 1199SEIU, points out that there are people doing such saintly work who nevertheless live in homeless shelters because they cannot afford rent in New York City when making $10 an hour.
Unionists have held marches from Columbus Circle to Time Square, demonstrations at Foley Square and marches to the state office building on 125th Street to demonstrate broad-based support for the fight.
Diane Holmes, 65, an 1199SEIU member and worker-owner at Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, said she enjoys the benefits of a worker co-op, like having a share in the company and exercising greater decision-making power on the job through participation in committees. Nevertheless, she added, the union’s campaign to raise the minimum wage remains crucial.
Holmes, who was born and raised in Harlem but moved to the Bronx as a young adult, started home care work in the 1980s. She has been with CHCA for six years, and she still makes $10 per hour.
She said she is only going to be able to do this work for one or two more years before she has to retire.
“But regardless,” Holmes added, fielding questions over the phone while getting her blood pressure taken at a local health clinic, “I’m going to go out with a fight and help to initiate this $15 an hour and anything else that I’m able to do because I’m in it to win it. I’m a thoroughbred. This is what we do in the union. We fight for this … to make it better for the home care workers as well as the health aides. So I will be doing this until I’m not.”
SEIU plans to run 50 to 100 buses to take thousands of home care and health care workers to Albany for a press conference at the capitol on March 15, in hopes of garnering enough support for a statewide minimum wage of $15 an hour to be passed on April 1.
Waiting for her train ride back to Brooklyn, O’Hara reiterated how much home care workers like herself often enjoy decent health care benefits yet still need to insist upon something more, like a minimum of $15 an hour, to live on.
“It’s not asking for much, but it’s a little better – a lot better,” she said.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He taught two media studies classes in the Department of Communication at California State University San Marcos during the fall 2015 semester. He has been a member of several unions, including Graduate Assistants United, the California Faculty Association, UFCW Local 135, and the Industrial Workers of the World. While a Graduate Assistant at SIUC, he served as steward for his college and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. He was a long-time member of the GAU Communications Committee. He regularly contributed to the GAU website and newsletter. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.