Michael Thompson, 59, has been a lifelong resident of Washington DC and a geriatrics home care worker for nine and a half years. Before becoming a home care worker, Michael worked in nursing homes as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) where he was sometimes responsible for the care of up to 11 patients per day. The lack of appropriate staffing in the nursing homes made it difficult to provide the compassionate care he thought patients deserved. He was barely taking care of one patient’s needs when the administration demanded he move on to another patient. After making the transition to become a Home Health Aide (HHA), Michael thought he’d be able to provide higher quality care to his patients as he would be able to spend more time with them on an individual basis.
As a home health aide Michael believes in taking care of his clients’ physical, mental, and spiritual condition. He believes that his job is to make sure their living environments allow them as much independence as possible. His current client, who is paralyzed, needs specialty, around-the-clock care. Michael has been taking care of him since 2008. “He depends on me for everything. He can’t function unless he has another person with him. I get him out of bed. I wash him. I feed him, clothe him.” Michael works 40hrs per week, but is barely able to get by on the $13.80 per hour he makes. “If you work 40 hours a week, you should not have worry about making a living wage. You should not be worried about where your next meal is coming from.”
Michael is not alone, and many DC residents do worry about where their next meal is coming from. Last year, a study released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that Washington DC is the most expensive place to live in the U.S. , with residents paying 18.2% higher than the national average for goods and services. In fact, a DC family of four needs to earn $88,615 per year just to get by. The Economic Policy Institute calculated and compared the local cost of food, housing, child care, transportation, healthcare, and other necessities in different regions in the country. It calculated that the local cost for the DC area and neighboring communities is 40% higher than the national median of $63,000 annually.
The uncertainty of living paycheck to paycheck has taken its toll on Michael. “My rent is $1,480 per month. I have to stretch every dollar to make sure we have enough to eat. I need to be healthy so I can be strong enough to take care of my client. So that he can be healthy.” Last year when six DC home care agencies were closed following an FBI investigation into fraudulent billing practices, Michael worked without pay and lost his home and car. This year alone he’s moved three times due to the continued domino effect from when the government shut down home care agencies and he and other workers went without pay. “I lost my place, my furniture, moved in with my sister. I was going to work but not getting paid. They would ask me ‘how do you work and not have any money to contribute?’ I was taking a toll on their household. Today I’m living with my significant other and I still struggle. They [the homecare agencies] don’t want to honor us and the work we do.”
We may wonder why Michael was still going to work if he wasn’t being paid. “As a healthcare provider I took an oath that I would provide care no matter what. I took that oath and that became a part of me. I am a healthcare provider. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. My client is paralyzed and his family was not there to take care of him on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. Who’s gonna take care of him if I don’t?”
During the FBI investigation of home care agencies which uncovered $78 billion dollars in fraud, Michael became concerned about the integrity of agencies in the home care field and the treatment of the elderly in this country. He says that when home care workers are treated well and paid fair wages, it translates to clients receiving higher quality care. However, the reality is that most DC agencies aren’t investing in their work force or in a home care system that serves DC residents, seniors and people with disabilities. This is why Michael is a strong leader in the fight for 15 and a union. Michael wants a union for himself and his co-workers so they can have a voice in making the DC home care system as strong as possible. Michael’s hope for the union is that it will help home care workers’ efforts to improve the quality of the field, provide a high standard of care, and be able to support their families. “I want to be able to be present with my client and do my best as a healthcare provider without worrying: Will I make rent? Will I have lights when I get home? I want to be present with my client so I can give my all.”
Although retired now, Evelyn Whitner worked several years as a home health aide for Nursing Enterprises Inc. Whitner knows that the home health aides are a vital part of the health care industry. They help people who are disabled, chronically ill or cognitively impaired. They provide care and assistance to older adults who need assistance. “We assist them in performing the activities of daily living…getting in and out of bed, bathing, dressing, keeping track of medication, and so forth.
“I’ve always been very pro-unions,” she added “ People should get paid for services rendered as well as benefits. I want home health aides to feel like we are professionals. Management sometimes talked down to us and didn’t provide us with enough support. When that happens, it’s the client that suffers.”
At 61 years old, Carl is a life-long resident of Washington DC. For the past 22 years, Carl has dedicated his life to helping others. As a homecare worker, Carl’s primary concern is making sure his clients’ needs are met and he hopes that by doing his job well he is able to make their lives just a little bit easier. It’s evident to see just how dedicated Carl is to his clients. For the past 21 years he has cared for the same client, David, 61, who is paralyzed from the neck down and requires assistance with almost every aspect of his daily life. Carl helps David with cooking, cleaning, and bathing. “He’s like a brother to me.” Carl says of David. “We’re very close. My own brother died 7 or 8 years ago and both of David’s parents passed while I was with him. He’s my family.”
A father of eight children, Carl has worked hard to put seven of them through college. The youngest one, now 13, has 5 years left before following in their footsteps. When his eldest was ready to go to college, Carl was making $10.50/hr and working a total of 112 hours per week in order to make ends meet. Despite this, Carl still depended on food pantries and soup kitchens to feed his entire family. Working these type of hours also affected his relationship with his wife. “My wife and I didn’t get to spend much time together. We still don’t. I’ve always worked two jobs and she was always working two or three jobs. But this was something we had agreed to. We were going give our kids the opportunity to go to college and we weren’t going to let money be the reason why they didn’t.”
Currently Carl works 72 hours per week for two different agencies, which prevents him from receiving any overtime pay. He works M-F 8am-4pm, while on the weekends he works a grueling 8am-midnight. “I don’t get any time off. I don’t even get any sick days, even though I’m supposed to get seven days off a year.”
Being able to claim those seven days of paid sick time would have meant the world to Carl earlier this year when he was diagnosed with MS. He was out for two weeks and did not receive even one paid sick day. “When I came back to work I was lucky to even get my clients back. That doesn’t happen very often. You usually don’t get back your old clients.”
For Carl, the ability to make a living wage, receive overtime as well as sick days, underscores the importance of being able to achieve $15 and a union. Making $13.80/hr means that Carl spends a check and a half just on rent. The other half of the check is spent on the basic necessities of daily life: food, clothes, and utilities. Making $15/hr would mean that he’d be able to breathe a little easier. He’d be able to go through life without making some of the tough decisions about what bill to pay first. Should he put food on the table? Or should he pay the electricity? He’d be able to cut back on some of his hours and spend more time with his family.
Carl also stresses the importance of connecting with other homecare workers. “Workers that come together are stronger in numbers and that’s why unions are important. Knowledge is power. If it wasn’t for 1199 I wouldn’t have known that my agency owes me seven paid sick days a year. That’s mandatory.” Carl also talks about how 1199 was also instrumental in advocating for the rights of workers and mandating that agencies pay the living wage. “From 2011 to 2013 they (the agencies) were supposed to give us a dollar raise, but they didn’t give it to use until the union started working with us. It’s nice to have someone who has our best interest our heart. I can’t say that about our employers. I thought at one time they were our friends – but if they were our friends they wouldn’t have held on to our raises.”
Thanks to Carl, his clients and their families are able to go on with their daily lives. Carl and other homecare workers take care of our sick. They take care of our elderly. They take care of our loved ones. Carl provides compassionate and loving care to his clients and has become a leader in the movement towards achieving $15 and a Union. This movement would not be where it is today if not for Carl.
Rhina’s Speech at the April 14 Fight for 15 National Day of Action.
On April 14, 2016 we were part of the Fight for 15 National Day of Action. We united with elected officials and community allies at a press conference to tell our stories, lift our voices and fight for $15 and union rights for all. Below is Rhina Garabito’s speech. Rhina is a home health aide in Washington DC.
My name is Rhina Garabito and I have been a home health aide for 5 years.
I work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week with three clients and three agencies just to make ends meet for me and my three children.
Every morning I leave the house at 7am and don’t return until 8pm at night. On weekends I work from 8am until 8pm.
I have to work very hard so I can provide for my children.
I pay $1,242 on rent.
I pay for cable and lights.
I pay $200 on insurance, but when I have to fix the car, it’s even more money.
Sometimes I have to take the bus which is $3.80.
I have to buy food for my kids to eat and clothes for them to wear.
It is impossible to take care of the needs of me and my family working $40 hours/week making $13.84.
It’s hard working such long hours.
As a mother, it is my responsibility to give my time and my love to my children.
I have all the love in the world for them but I can’t give them the time they deserve.