1199 press conference outside DC Superior Court for class action lawsuit for home health aides, Dec. 11, 2014.  Photo:  Jay Mallin   jay@jaymallinphotos.com

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.”