ANNAPOLIS, Md. — If it weren’t for the daily visits from home health care worker Linda Davis, Donald Barnes believes he would be living in a nursing home rather than his own apartment.
“She fixes me food. She makes sure I take my medicine like I’m supposed to. She makes sure I’m bathed and have clean clothes to put on,” said Barnes, a 64-year-old stroke victim. “If I didn’t have her, I’d just be a lost soul.”
Davis is among 3,000 home aides working under contracts with the state of Maryland to help about 5,000 people with disabilities. The aides are paid, at most, $50 a day.
Two unions — the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — say low pay is common among the 300,000 home care workers who have government contracts nationwide. The unions are trying to organize workers in Maryland and other states.
“Home care workers usually make minimum wage or just above minimum wage,” said Howard Croft, who oversees the national organizing campaign for SEIU.
No pay raises since 1986
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich has offered a 10 percent increase in pay in his proposed budget, but home care workers say that’s not enough. Most have had no pay increases since 1986 and receive no health benefits, sick days or retirement.
“I’ve been working 23 years now. I’ve seen the money go up a couple of dollars,” said Theresa Bates-Atugah, who takes care of two clients in Baltimore. She said she earns $5 to $6 an hour.
“I put my bills in the hat and wonder which ones I can pay,” Bates-Atugah said.
Mark Leeds, who oversees the home aide program for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said when the state began paying for home care in 1981, it was intended as a stipend — a little money to repay neighbors, friends and relatives who helped disabled people on voluntary basis. Over the years, however, it has turned into a sole source of income for many workers.
Leeds said a 10 percent increase was the best the governor could do in tight budget times, but acknowledged: “I don’t think it resolves the issue in the long term.”
Home care workers came to Annapolis recently to press their case at a legislative hearing. Even with the governor’s proposed increases, they say their income would still fall below the federal poverty level, which is $12,830 a year for a family of two.
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With the 2005 legislative session ending next week, personal care workers probably will have to accept the pay increase offered by the governor, but they planned to return next year if necessary.
'It's not really a living wage'
In Maryland, home aides are paid a daily rate based on the level of services provided: $10 per visit for those requiring the least help, $20 for those needing an intermediate level of care and $50 a day for full-time, live-in care. Except for live-in workers, most visit their clients five days a week.
They will get $1 more a day for the lowest level and $2 more for the next level, under Ehrlich’s budget, but still will get no benefits.
Union leaders say organizing campaigns are producing results in other states.
In San Diego County, Calif., employees received pay raises totaling 33 percent in three years, said Ayelet Hines, spokeswoman in AFSCME’s Washington headquarters.
Janet Rodriguez, an SEIU member in Seattle, spends about 60 hours a week with a 23-year-old severely disabled client “who really doesn’t do anything for herself.” As a result of a union contract, she earns $8.93 an hour and has health benefits, she said.
But union representatives say a more typical scenario is that of home aides like Wayne Abbas, of Iowa Falls, Iowa.
Abbas says he works 60 to 80 hours a week with 12 mostly elderly clients who need help with shopping, appointments and chores. He is paid $10 an hour with no benefits and said more than half of his pay goes to expenses, taxes and health insurance.
“It’s not really a living wage,” he said, “but I love what I do.”
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