Take care of home care workers

click to enlarge Take care of home care workers
Sherry Morris, a home care worker, and her son, who receives home care.

Home care is essential to my family. During my late mother's final days, home care workers made sure she was fed, clothed and comfortable so that I could be by her side as a daughter rather than a caretaker.  My adult son is living with severe autism and requires near constant supervision. Home care workers allow me to go to work knowing that he is safe and cared for.

I'm also a home care worker myself. And after 11 years on the job, I consider this job a calling. It is incredibly rewarding to care for seniors and people with disabilities so that they can continue to live independently and with dignity in their homes. 

Home care services have been absolutely critical for my family, and I know mine isn't the only one. Across Illinois, families, seniors and people with disabilities rely on home care services to live full lives and remain a part of their communities in the setting of their choice.

I love my job, but it's getting harder and harder for me to stay in this field. I'm only paid $16.30 per hour without any standard benefits like paid time off or retirement security. I'm often making difficult choices about which bill to pay because there just isn't enough in my bank account. I'm constantly worried about an unexpected expense like a car repair or a medical bill – there's absolutely no wiggle room in my budget. And forget saving for retirement. On my wages, that is a luxury I simply can't afford. 

Since the wages are so low, it's no surprise that the agency where I work is severely understaffed. Supervisors routinely have to leave our office to help out clients in the community because we do not have enough workers to keep up with demand. This consistent shortage leaves the rest of us to pick up the slack, fueling burnout and lowering the quality of care we're able to provide.

The sad truth is that this has become the norm in Illinois. Illinois home care workers serving seniors through the Community Care Program have a wage floor of $15.45 per hour, which comes out to about $32,000 per year if you get full-time hours, and most of us don't. Plus there are no uniform training standards for home care workers, even though we have people's lives in our hands. The result is a turnover rate that hovers around 65% and an extreme shortage of home care workers. 

Our state is facing a care crisis. Illinois needs an estimated 9,000 more home care workers each year just to maintain current service levels. Meanwhile, seniors and people with disabilities are going without care. This problem will only get worse as our population ages and more people require care. I'm terrified as both a home care worker and as a mother whose son relies on these essential services.

Luckily there's a solution to the care crisis: raise the minimum wage for Illinois Community Care Program (CCP) home care workers to $18 per hour by increasing funding for this program in our state's budget. Raising the minimum wage for home care workers is a long-term investment not only for our seniors and a diverse home care workforce, but for our entire state.

This would help us stay in our jobs, expand the workforce and empower us to be able to care for our communities so they can age with dignity. And it's how we build an economy that works for everyone, one that pays home care workers what we deserve and ensures everyone has access to the long-term care they need. 

Every Illinois resident in need of home care services should have access to them, no matter their ZIP code, their race or the balance in their bank account. I may need home care not long from now, and I want to know that we will have the workforce we need. And the critical home care workers that allow seniors and people with disabilities to remain in their community deserve a career they can thrive in, with dignified working conditions, living wages, benefits and robust training and support.

Turnover in the home care industry is high because this work is hard, with little financial security. Even before the pandemic, there was a home care crisis, and the rapidly aging population needs us now more than ever before. 

Without home care workers, my son wouldn't be able to take care of himself. Home care workers need to be recognized for the essential work we do every day. Our elected leaders must do right by our state's families and invest in the future of care in our state budget.

Sherry Morris is a Riverton home care worker and member of SEIU Healthcare Illinois.