Close to Home: Living wage ordinance must include caregivers, too

There is a relatively new hymn sung in churches around the world. The first line reads, “For everyone born a place at the table.” The song imagines a world where everyone has a place at the table of plenty, a table of justice that lies at the center of our common life. Holding this vision of equality and justice for all, we must be concerned as we perceive ourselves and our communities falling short.

The county Board of Supervisors recently gave preliminary approval for the creation of a living wage ordinance of $15 an hour for employees of for-profit county contractors. But this plan must include a place at the table for all, including the men and women who serve the community as home-care providers.

Being one of the most expensive areas of the state in terms of cost of living, Sonoma County can be - and often is - out of reach for many residents. It is unclear, then, why the board has decided to distinguish among low-wage workers as to who is eligible for the raise and who is not.

For example, every week, Anita Torres cares for four older Sonoma residents in their own homes, but at her current wage of $11.65 an hour, she can barely make ends meet.

Anita is just one of the nearly 5,000 Sonoma men and women who work as home care providers, helping seniors and people with disabilities every day with tasks such as bathing, toileting, administering medication, transportation, cooking and cleaning.

Home care providers make it possible for our parents and grandparents to live safely in their homes rather than be forced to enter institutional settings such as hospitals or nursing homes.

With a raise that allows Anita to stay in her job, the people under her care are more likely to thrive with the structure and familiarity that comes from seeing the same caregiver week after week.

Living at home with assistance from a caregiver is also cost-efficient. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state spends roughly $12,000 each year to provide care for low-income residents in their own homes, versus $51,000 if that same resident were in a nursing home.

It’s puzzling that the board approved a $15 minimum wage for employees of small businesses and nonprofits, but not for home care workers. Hard-working caregivers in Sonoma County should be eligible for the same wage as a caregiver employed by a nonprofit organization under contract with the county. After all, it is a matter of justice: everyone deserves a place at the table.

For too long, the contributions of home care workers have been undervalued and viewed as unimportant. But we now understand how staying at home can improve an older or disabled family member’s health and life expectancy and how working with the same caregiver can enhance their care.

So, I ask the board not to risk a high turnover among home care workers by refusing to pay these essential employees the same living wage everyone else will earn. They can do this in the spirit of fairness, equality and justice. They can do this knowing that all deserve a “place at the table” of our common wealth.

The Board of Supervisors needs to reconsider its decision and extend the living-wage proposal of $15 to home care workers. Everyone deserves a place at the table.

Leaving them out was a mistake, and now is the time for the board to invest in the health of our community by strengthening this ordinance.

The Rev. David Parks-Ramage is pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Santa Rosa.

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