When ICS members learned that the New York State Assembly would be holding hearings on the home care workforce on February 22 in downtown Manhattan, well over 40 were moved to make their presence felt and their feelings known about this issue of vital importance to their lives. The large numbers of people with disabilities pushed the Committees holding the hearing to open a spillover room “for the first time in memory,” according to one veteran Assembly member.
Convened at 250 Broadway, across the street from City Hall, the hearing was chaired by Assembly member Richard Gottfried from the Committee on Health and attended by members of the Assembly’s Committees on Labor and Aging and the Taskforce on Disabilities, including Labor Committee chair Michele Titus, Aging Committee Chair Donna A. Lupardo, and local Assembly members, including Tremaine Wright of Brooklyn and Inez Dickens of Manhattan.
One of the first to testify was Philip Bennett, long-time personal attendant of ICS Board member TK Small, who would address the hearing himself later in his role as Director of Policy and Outreach for Concepts of Independence. Phil spoke passionately about how the work to which he has dedicated his life has been devalued in the labor market and by government regulators. He attributed some of this attitude to the fact that a large part of this segment of the workforce are, unlike him, immigrant women of color. He pleaded with the Assembly members to lead a change in attitude. Assembly member LuPardo assured him, “We get it.”
High Hours, Low Pay
An example of the long-standing attitude about home care workers: In the 1970s, home care work was exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) overtime rules granted to most categories of hourly wage earners, depriving home care workers of “time and a half” for each hour worked over 40 hours in a week. Considering that so many people with complex care needs require 12 or more hours of personal assistance a day, this rule saved Medicaid (and private employers, who followed the government’s lead on pay) untold billions over the past 40 years. At the same time, however, these savings made it very difficult for home care workers to earn a living wage.
But as the baby boomer generation has aged—a point made effectively in testimony from independent researcher Henry Moss on behalf of the New York Statewide Senior Action Council—the size of the home care workforce has grown to the point where it can no longer be ignored.
Two years ago, the Obama administration overturned the overtime exemption, a move that federal courts affirmed (and the Supreme Court declined to gainsay) last year. Meanwhile, also in 2016, Gov. Cuomo signed into law an upgrade of New York’s minimum wage to $15 to take effect in stages over the next several years. Unfortunately for many of New York’s home care workers, these mandated increases in their wages, without sufficient funds from the government to back them up, have meant cuts in hours rather than increases in pay. According to testimony, some have even had their wage rates cut by agencies or MLTCs that cannot afford the increases!
As the presence of ICS members as well as their words at the hearing attested, people with disabilities believe the time is beyond time to give the home care workforce a fair wage for its important work.
“If home care workers are not paid appropriately,” Marilyn Saviola, ICS Senior VP of Advocacy and the Women’s Health Access Project, testified wearing her hat as a consumer, “they will leave the field and seek work in higher paying fields like the fast food industry. Most of the people I know that are home care workers are doing it because they love their work. They know they could work in another field but they choose to help people. We need home care workers to want to stay in this field.”
Marilyn pointed out the importance of her assistants to her own life, saying, “With home care, I have moved out of an institution, attended college, gotten a Master’s degree, secured employment, led a nonprofit agency and started a program that has improved the lives of thousands of women in New York City. Without home care, I am unable to work, unable to pay taxes and unable to contribute to society. It matters.”
Diane Calise, primary caregiver for her sister, who is an ICS member, said, “I thank God for these workers. Personally, I could not do the work they do. Unfortunately, because they earn so little, you often get people there who are just there for the paycheck. They don’t care about their work or the people they work for. This is not good for the worker or the person who needs their help.”
“I am 41 now, still relatively young, with a college education and a will and desire to work,” member Valerie Joseph told the panel. “Having an aide help me with activities of daily living is critical to my attaining my goal of being gainfully employed and feeling useful to other people and responsible as a taxpayer…. Without my aides, I am at risk of being stuck at home, or worse, in a nursing home.”
“What may seem like dependence on others for help with my most basic needs is to me what makes independence possible,” said ICS Member Advocate and home care consumer Marcus Johnson. “Without consistent home care, independence for me is not possible. There would be no job, no social life, but most importantly, no independence to live my life as fully as I want to.”
At the end of the day, many attendants who represented home service agencies, advocates for older adults and people with disabilities, or independent living centers agreed that the testimony of ICS members was critical for Assembly members to hear. Karen Haslanger, CEO of JASA, called it “the most important testimony of the day.”
The testimony from ICS members and caregivers was certainly important. The volume of non- testifying ICS members in the room was just as eloquent. Thanks to the ICS Member Civics League, a whole bunch of people were ready, willing and able to put the advocacy skills the group was formed to instill in interested members and non-members to good use.