Deborah Watson has devoted more than three decades of her life to caring for others, both professionally as a home health aide and personally, lending a hand to family members who needed her help.
Starting out as a chore aide in DC in the early ‘Eighties, Deborah has seen it all. From the very beginning she’s been fighting wage theft, unpaid sick days, and unfair dismissal. You name it. Deborah has faced it.
She has eight siblings, all of whom have lived with her at one time or another. Deborah also has three grown-up God-daughters, Melinda, Oprah and Starr. For many years, she also looked after Starr’s daughter, Journei, who is now ten.
Keeping the family together and maintaining a stable home for her extended family has not been easy and money has always been tight.
Back in the ‘Eighties and early ‘Nineties, Deborah worked for Community Multi-services and Randall School home makers, who had an office in the grounds of DC General.
She remembers having to stand outside in the cold and rainy weather to pick up her paychecks. Sometimes the checks weren’t even there. She recalls: “I had no food in the house and it was very cold and icy.” Eventually, after a long fight, she won $675 in back-pay from her days as a chore aide.
By the late nineties, there was a drive to train and certify home health aides and Deborah qualified as a Nursing Assistant at that time and began working with the Tri-State agency.
“But they were always messing with my pay check. Back pay, late pay, everything. They tried to say they didn’t owe me because I hadn’t been at work….and then they fired me,” she remembers.
Because she was fired she was not eligible for unemployment benefits. Luckily for her, she had kept in touch with the property managers at the building where her client lived and they vouched for her at the unemployment tribunal, verifying that she had come into work. She won her case.
By 2004 she was working for the Human Touch agency, but they were also routinely late in handing out her paychecks. At this point she was looking after Journei. She was forced to take her out of daycare and stop work because she got behind on paying the bills while she was waiting for her checks.
After this, Deborah went to work for the Spectrum agency, but they were even worse. In 2007, the FBI swooped in to investigate the agency for Medicaid fraud and locked the office. The home health aides could not get in to collect their checks.
“I only had just enough money to cover my rent, so that we would not be evicted,” she recalls. Eventually, about two-thirds of her money was recovered, but she’s still waiting for the rest, nearly a decade later.
Now aged 57, Deborah is still working full-time. But with multiple health problems, it is getting harder every day. She suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma and recently she had to have knee surgery.
That doesn’t stop the agencies from messing with her entitlements. Just a couple of months ago, she put in for two days sick leave because she had a bad sinus infection. The agency initially refused to accept her time sheet, saying that she needed a doctor’s note.
She knew her rights, though, and was aware that the first three days of sick leave were ‘self-certified’. She called an 1199SEIU organizer from the agency’s office. That call appeared to intimidate the agency staff into changing his mind about accepting the sick days on her time sheet and she received the pay she was owed.
“I’m not going to a doctor and pay a co-pay just to get a sick note,” she said, “They know I have a sister who’s an attorney, when I called the union, I think they thought I was talking to her.
“That’s why I want a union. So that they can’t get away with anything anymore.”
Sometimes, Deborah goes to work, knowing she’s not going to get paid, because she knows the client needs her. She’s even gone from church to church to find food for her clients when their food stamps were late.
“I’m trying to make up for a system that is not working.” Deborah believes it’s time we started a conversation regarding the best way to invest taxpayer dollars in high, quality care for older Americans and people with disabilities. “With a union we can stand together and fight back.”