Underpaid workers in our economy are more likely to be victims of rampant wage theft. Whether we work at Chipotle, in Capitol Hill cafeterias or in home care, wage theft — in the form of denied overtime and paid sick leave or delayed paychecks — has kept too many of us struggling for too long.
For more than 22 years, I’ve been a home care worker in D.C. I raised my eight kids — ages 13 to 38 — and put several through college on $10.50 an hour. Some years, we skipped Thanksgiving or just managed enough for Christmas, but every week was a new challenge. To afford basics like food, rent and school supplies, I was working nearly 120 hours per week for three home care agencies. Each agency had a different problem with paying workers. At one agency, paydays would change frequently and with- out notice, so we never actually knew what day we would be paid. At other agencies, I might get my check on time, but it would bounce. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, such troubles make it nearly impossible to plan and care for your family.
Now, I’m 62 years old. As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder to manage the long hours, so I work around 72 hours each week. Home care workers across D.C. have come together to fight for our union and for better pay. The agencies have started paying us the legally required living wage of $13.84 per hour, but we’re still not paid for overtime and can’t take time off when we’re sick. D.C. law is clear on these two fronts: Employers must provide sick leave and com- pensate for time worked beyond 40 hours per week.
So, home care workers who work for more than a dozen agencies have launched a series of lawsuits to win back our wages. We care for others’ loved ones and deserve to be able to take care of our own. For too long, home care agencies have been evading the law and preying on their workers and our clients.
Over the past two years, we’ve filed four lawsuits against 14 agencies to end the violations of D.C.’s worker protections and recover the back pay owed to us. Together, these lawsuits allege liabilities totaling millions of dollars, including back pay owed to home care providers who worked without any pay during a major Medicaid fraud investigation that uncovered more than $78 million in illicit payments.
Even before reaching trial, these lawsuits have caused some home care agencies to start providing the legally required amount of paid sick leave. Many agencies have even entered into voluntary set- tlement negotiations with employees to compensate them for years of wage theft and losses, but there is still a long way to go.
I’m a plaintiff in the most recent lawsuit against three Medicaid providers: KBC, ASAP and Premium Select. A few years ago, when I was working for ASAP and Premium Select, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Under D.C. law, I should have been able to take sick leave, but the agencies denied me that right. I had to take six unpaid weeks off of work to rest and get the medical care I needed. With- out food pantries and help from friends and family, I don’t know what my family would have done.
Care providers and D.C. seniors deserve better. I love my job and love knowing that I made some- one’s day easier by helping them eat, bathe or do other daily tasks, but even with hard work and long hours, I can’t support my family.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, home care is one of the country’s fast-growing occu- pations, but low pay and lack of benefits for home care workers are leading to alarmingly high turn- over, jeopardizing critical services as more and more Americans want care at home over expensive long- term care facilities. In D.C., there are five seniors who want home care for every one available worker. Unless we end this wage theft and make sure pro- viders are paid fairly and on time, we’ll never be able to get more people to join — and stay — in the profession I love.
That’s why I am joining with other home care workers to end the fraud, abuse and neglect running rampant in D.C.’s home care system. We need a bet- ter system for home care workers so we can provide the best care possible to the people who need us.
Carl Wilson is a home care worker in D.C.