Taking care of our caretakers

Every day across our nation, about two million people, including 73,000 in Illinois, go to work caring for people in their homes. They bathe our parents and grandparents, and administer their medications. They help our children with disabilities get dressed. They brush our sisters’ hair, and assist our brothers with shaving. They prepare meals for our elderly neighbors; monitor blood pressure for our aunts and uncles; help our friends with physical therapy exercises.

Their work is demanding. It can be dirty. It can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. But it can also be enormously satisfying. Most important, it allows our loved ones to live in their homes with dignity and independence, rather than in institutions.

And yet, until recently, these home care workers could be paid less than the minimum wage for their work. A decades-old exemption in federal regulations allowed them to be included in the same category as babysitters. The U.S. Department of Labor last year issued new regulations to address that problem, which means home care workers can no longer be paid a sub-minimum wage for the critical, difficult work they do.

Unfortunately, last month the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn made it harder for home care workers in Illinois to get decent wages and benefits.

Nine out of 10 home care workers are women — about half of them are women of color. An estimated 40 percent are on some form of public assistance. They earn about $20,000 a year, often working far more than 40 hours per week. One woman told us that she left her job as a home health aide to work at a fast food restaurant because it paid better.

We can’t afford to pay so little to workers who are in increasingly high demand. With our largest generation — the baby boomers — hitting retirement age at a moment when American life expectancy is higher than ever, we’ll need 50 percent more home care workers by 2022.

Labor unions help ensure that home care workers receive fair wages, workplace protections and benefits, as well as professional development and training. Those provisions have attracted more qualified workers and reduced turnover rates, which has resulted in significant savings for taxpayers. Illinois saves over $600 million a year in Medicaid costs via the home-care model instead of more costly public institutionalization.

As our population ages and the trend away from institutional care and toward in-home services grows, it’s in our collective interest to ensure a sustainable pipeline of skilled workers ready to provide the care so many of us will rely on at some point in our lives. Public-sector unions help build that pipeline by guaranteeing decent wages and adequate benefits for a growing work force.

These workers aren’t merely companions. They are professionals, doing heroic, demanding and increasingly skilled work. The services they provide allow us to remain in our homes, in our communities, while still receiving critical care.

So they deserve our respect, our admiration and our gratitude. But more important, they deserve to be treated fairly, with all of the rights and protections in the workplace that Americans have come to expect. That includes the right to have a voice in the workplace and the right to bargain collectively.


Lisa Madigan is Illinois Attorney General and Thomas Perez is the U.S. Secretary of Labor.