We’re talking about home care workers.
These people—mainly women, many of whom are immigrants—fill a vital role in helping care for our aging loved ones, and yet many of them cannot even earn a living wage based on our current systems.
The COVID pandemic has heightened our awareness of just how unfair the situation is. Like other essential workers, home care professionals have been forced to put themselves at additional risk over the long months since March. While their job comes with inherent risks, including regular physical strain and potential disability, the coronavirus has greatly increased the potential dangers caregivers’ expose themselves to on a daily basis. But most do not have the option to stop working. They need the income for themselves and their families.
Tragically, across the nation, professional home health aides only earn an average of $12 per hour. That amounts to only $480 per week for a 40-hour work week, or just under $25,000 annually (assuming the caregiver doesn’t take any time off).
For context, according to MIT, that income amount falls just short of the living wage for Hartford County, Connecticut. While the Connecticut minimum wage will eventually increase to $15, that transition will not be complete until June 1, 2023. Until then, compensation for these critical workers will likely remain below the level that can reasonably sustain a single adult.
On the flip side, the financial burden of paying for care creates a different kind of crisis for families whose loved ones need support. Full-time care (168 hours per week) at even $12 per hour amounts to more than $2,000 per week. That’s more than $100,000 over the course of a single year. This is why so many families end up taking a patchwork approach to in-home care—paying for some care out of pocket, possibly funding some through Medicaid or other insurance, and very often having family members provide the bulk of the care (a situation which puts a lot of strain on family relations).
And yet, despite how hard it is to afford home care, it’s clear that we aren’t paying these people enough. We entrust our loved ones to their care. We ask them to do the work that none of us feel able or willing to do.
In addition to being a matter of fairness, finding a way to compensate home caregivers more appropriately will have profound effects on the availability and quality of care available in the years to come. According to Census projections, a wave of aging Boomers is coming—by the mid 2030s, the number of Americans over 65 will increase to 78 million. For the first time in our country’s history, seniors will outnumber children under 18. These people will need care, but if we aren’t able to fix our systems, there may not be professionals available to fill the need.
The incoming administration hopes to address the current crisis and the impending one with a first-of-its-kind policy that plans to “mobilize American talent and heart to create a 21st Century caregiving and education workforce.” If this policy is enacted, it will provide support to family caregivers; fund initiatives to expand non-institutional care; implement a national strategy to recruit, retain, and empower nursing professionals; and much more.
While the pandemic has made 2020 a difficult year for everyone, the coronavirus has wreaked particular havoc on the lives, safety, and wellbeing of essential workers, including home caregivers.
Perhaps the silver lining is that our shared experience has brought more awareness to the value of essential workers, and the fact that that value is not reflected in their compensation. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, leaders from all sectors will come together to rectify this problem. The people who tend to the physical, medical, and emotional needs of our loved ones deserve more than acknowledgement.