Reina Berrios is used to working hard to make ends meet. She has been working 80 hours a week for the past 13 years, as a home health aide.
She has to work for two separate agencies in order to put together enough hours to pay her bills. Neither Human Touch nor T & N will give her more than 40 hours each and she assumes that is because they don’t want to pay her overtime.
But it is not the long hours which really get to her. It is the fact that she does not always receive what she’s due at the end of it. Not only does she receive no overtime differentials, Reina does not receive either paid sick days or vacation time.
One time when there was a heavy snowstorm in DC, she trudged for seven hours through the snow to reach her client and the agency still didn’t want to pay her. “I couldn’t believe it. After I had walked all that way to get there,” she said.
At Human Touch, Reina cares for an 87-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s who uses a wheelchair, and at T&N she cares for an 86-year-old male who is blind and also uses a wheelchair.
She loves working in home care because she values the humanity involved in caring for other people, but says that home care workers need to be paid more so that they don’t have to work weekends just to earn a living.
Reina has had many problems getting all the pay she is owed from T&N, and has been talking to the union lawyers about how she can make a legal claim for back pay. The agencies require that the HHAs log their hours by cell phone, but the system doesn’t always work and her hours are not recorded properly. When that happens, she says that T & N blames her and she receives nothing.
Reina was born in El Salvador and both her clients are Spanish-speaking, like her. She enjoys the work, especially in the summer when she can take her clients out for walks in the sunshine. These walks also give her the chance to go by the agency to pick up her pay check. It is not easy to get there by public transportation in the wintertime. She has to take two busses in each direction.
On weekdays she works eight hours a day for one client through Human Touch and another four hours with another through T & N. On weekends she works 10 hours a day, 8am-6pm with T & N. This leaves her almost no time to do anything else except sleep.
When Reina first came to the US from El Salvador, she was only 17 years old. She started out working as a cleaner in office buildings and then worked in a hotel laundry, ironing the linens. But after working for many years in the steam-filled environment, her lungs became damaged and she had to find other work.
Reina was in a union when she worked at the hotel and knows how important it is for workers to stand together if they want to improve their pay and conditions.
Before the recent election, she went out canvassing for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia, Detroit and Virginia. “None of us wanted Trump to be president. He has no compassion. Clinton, on the other hand, had many programs for children and the elderly. She didn’t want to leave anyone behind.”
For herself, Reina added: “Home Health Aides in the District work very hard to look after others. We shouldn’t have to find ourselves having to borrow and scrape around to make ends meet. With a union, we’d have a better chance of getting what we deserve.”