Close to Home: Approve this long needed pay increase for caregiver

Over the past 40 years, I’ve worked as an in-home care provider to dozens of people, mostly seniors with dementia. I do all kinds of things for them - cooking, shopping, bathing, taking them to the toilet, making sure they take their medicine. I love my work. It’s a calling for me. My clients are often so isolated and bewildered. I love communicating with them and coaxing them out of their shells. When a person has dementia, you can see them stripped down to the core of who they are as a person, and that can be quite beautiful.

But I earn $11.65 an hour, which is not enough, even when you’re working 40 hours a week. Most home care providers end up working off the clock, too - doing odd jobs for our clients, or helping out when they’re in the hospital.

Our situation could be improved if the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors stepped in. The supervisors will soon consider a $15-an-hour living wage ordinance that would cover more than 5,500 county employees and contractors, including more than 4,000 home care workers. Another proposal recommends excluding home care and cutting the wage to $13 an hour. But that’s just not enough.

We all know that the cost of living in Sonoma County is high. To afford living here, workers need a wage of $15 an hour. Otherwise, we just can’t get by.

Doing this work at the current wage, you become familiar with the food banks in the area. Many of us caregivers have ended up homeless and living in shelters, even while working full-time. No one deserves that, and it takes a toll on all community members.

Home care workers should be eligible under the living wage ordinance because there is increasing demand for our services. Here in Sonoma County, just like in the rest of the nation, our population is aging. One in seven residents is 65 or older. In 15 years, it will be one in four. That’s a lot of people who are going to need help just to get by. Maybe some of them will be your grandparents or parents. Maybe it’ll be you.

Without higher pay, there will be greater turnover as home care workers search for better paying jobs. That instability undermines client care and puts a strain on taxpayers. It doesn’t have to be that way. Study after study shows seniors stay healthier when they’re able to live in their own homes. If they can’t find reliable help, seniors may end up in nursing homes that cost considerably more. In fact, according to a study by the University of Massachusetts, paying home care workers $15 an hour can still save millions of public dollars compared to nursing home care.

On Wednesday, I joined other home care workers at a rally in the East Bay as a part of the nationwide “Fight for $15” campaign. Workers like me gathered in dozens of cities across the nation that day, pushing for a living wage for our hard work.

I love the pace of life and the people in Sonoma. But if I were younger and just starting out, I most likely wouldn’t consider working as a home care provider here. I’d either move somewhere less expensive or find a job that paid more. We need more people to do this work for our growing number of seniors. But how are we going to find caring, compassionate people if they can’t even afford to live here?

Who is going to do this challenging work if it’s a struggle to pay rent and bills even when working full-time? The only way we’re going to find and recruit good caregivers into this work is if they have a chance of earning a living wage.

Carol Taylor is an in-home care provider who lives in Sonoma.

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