Winning Fair Wages for DC Caregivers

On a Saturday a few months ago I opened the 19th check in a series from my employer, a DC home care agency. After years of pervasive, crippling wage theft, my co-workers and I were finally paid the tens of thousands of dollars we were owed for over four years.

I started working in this field five years ago when my mother got sick. I quit my job in food service to stay home and care for her, and got my official certification as a home health aide. After she passed away, I decided to continue working in home care. It’s a meaningful job, taking care of my community and making sure they get the care they need to live in comfort and security.

But, for the past several years my home care agency has skimmed wages off of our paychecks. That meant I had to make ends meet by eating dinner at my relatives’ homes and even take out small loans to cover my monthly bills. I couldn’t afford to take time off to visit my family in other states, and I continued to live in an apartment in a dangerous neighborhood because it was the only place I could afford rent. My co-worker Eva — also a longtime DC home care worker — had to rely on food stamps to feed herself and her two children, including one with special needs.

Home care workers throughout D.C. are financially hurting from wage theft and low wages, not to mention wildly insufficient healthcare and other benefits. According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI), “direct care workers are leaving this occupation in droves, often within a year, fed up with low wages, marginal benefits, and limited opportunities to advance.”

While talented workers are driven away, endemic problems mean new caregivers aren’t applying to what’s one of the fastest growing fields in the entire country. The result is a care crisis that affects caregivers and clients alike: in all of D.C., there’s only one home care worker available for every five seniors in need of services. There’s no reason why a profession as rewarding and urgent as home care should be one of the hardest jobs in the country to fill, and I worry that without significant fixes and a voice on the job for workers, we’ll continue on a path that hurts not just caregivers but seniors and people with disabilities too.

Sadly, wage theft in service jobs — particularly low-paid jobs — is all too common and totals at least $20 billion a year according to analysis from the Economic Policy Institute. Just last month, fast-food workers at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s filed dozens of wage theft complaints. One Carl’s Jr. worker said, “The restaurant I worked at went an entire month without paying me a dime, and they only agreed to pay me after I stopped coming to work in protest.” Meanwhile, in California, dozens of nail salon workers just filed a lawsuit to win back stolen wages — a year after New York City workers won back $2 million from a total of 143 salons.

When corporations time and again choose to cheat workers like me, it’s hard to feel you have the power to take them on, especially as just one worker. But as we’ve shown — whether we’re in fast-food, home care, salons or other industries, by working together we can level the playing field.

For D.C. home care workers, we’ve been frustrated for too long about all the times we’d worked extra hours and were paid less than the living wage. Too many of us had seen talented co-workers leave the field, driven away by inadequate and late pay. And so we decided to take on the industry together. 
Over the last few years, we’ve filed lawsuits against 15 agencies to win back wages owed to us for overtime and living wage violations. We filed these lawsuits to win money owed, but also to draw a line in the sand that agencies have to comply with the law and treat workers fairly — and it’s worked. Even before our lawsuits reached trial, they made agencies including my employer start providing home care workers with the legally-required amount of sick time. That’s a huge win, and just the beginning. The way I see it, when an agency that has been skirting the law decides to suddenly comply with it, it’s a clear sign of the power of our voice as workers. In fact, I’ve been blown away by our ability to shift how agencies treat us, simply by standing up and fighting for what’s right. Every victory we’ve notched has energized us to stand up even taller against the mistreatment and abuse. When Eva started receiving her checks, she made sure to inform every care worker in her client’s building of their rights — and she’s never stopped.

Through the course of our lawsuits, I’ve recognized that we workers can accomplish together far exceeds what we can do alone. Imagine if home care workers got together at every single agency in every part of the city and fought for and won a voice on the job. We could transform the entire industry.

With a voice through a union, we could grow our fight for higher pay and curb the abuse of workers for good. We could ensure our field attracts and retains enough qualified workers to provide quality care services to everyone who needs them. We could advocate for ourselves and our clients, and end the rampant mistreatment of D.C. residents by the city’s home care agencies. That’s why I’m continuing to stand together with other home care workers. It gives me strength to know that I’m joined with home care workers from Anacostia to Columbia Heights who all want to make sure that our jobs are good jobs, and that DC is a city that works for everyone.