The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. home health-care workers organize to seek $15 an hour

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. (Molly Riley/AP)

Paula Wilson has worked as a home health-care aide in D.C. for 18 years. When she started in the profession in the ’90s, she made $8 an hour. She was laid off from an agency in 2013, where she made $10.75 per hour, and now makes about $13 an hour working part-time for an elderly patient with Alzheimer’s.

She says the wages are not enough to pay rent or even take her son to the movies, and she was evicted from her apartment a couple of years ago. She and her son now live with her mother in the Capitol Heights area.

“This is my job, this is my duty,” Wilson said. “It’s an unacceptable wage.”

Wilson joined hundreds of other D.C. home health-care workers Wednesday night at a town hall-style meeting in a Fort Totten church to rally for a $15 wage. The rally, which featured a keynote speech from U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, was the District’s workers’ official foray into the national “Fight for $15” movement — a movement inspired by the fast-food industry’s push for higher wages.

D.C.’s at least 6,000 home health-care workers work for about 26 health-care agencies. They were organized by Service Employees International Union 1199, the regional chapter of a national labor union that put on Wednesday’s event, though few of the workers are members of the union. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and the Rev. Graylan Hagler, a longtime activist and pastor of Plymouth United Congregational Church, where the event took place, also spoke at the event.

“We need a million more [home health-care workers] in the next 10 years,” Norton said. “They may have a hard time getting more of them if they’re not paying them.”

The demand for home health-care workers is fast growing in the United States, with more being needed as baby boomers grow older. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the country will need an additional 1 million such workers by 2022. According to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project, the nation’s 2 million home health-care workers took home an average salary of $18,598 in 2013, compared to the national average of $46,440 for salaried workers that year.

“No one who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty,” said Perez, who rallied workers to organize, with references to Selma and the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “You are not babysitters, you are professionals doing some of the most important work.”

The District’s home health-care industry made headlines last year when a long federal investigation revealed that D.C. operators of home-care agencies and personal-care assistants had been running a Medicaid scheme, swindling taxpayers out of tens of millions of dollars. Because of the investigation, some agencies were cut off from Medicaid funding and, during this time, many home health care workers say they weren’t paid.

In December, some of D.C.’s health-care workers filed suit against three home-care agencies alleging that workers weren’t paid for all of their time and were not provided sick days. The suit, in which Wilson is a plaintiff, was later expanded to a class-action suit.

Outside of the health-care worker industry, labor organizations are advocating for a $15 minimum wage in D.C. The local chapter of Restaurants Opportunities Center United is pushing a ballot initiative that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 by 2019.  In January 2014, then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray signed legislation into law that would incrementally raise the city’s minimum wage from $8.25 to $11.50 in July 2016. (The minimum wage was bumped to $9.50 last July.)

President Obama has long called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage, but the measure has never gotten far in the Republican-controlled legislature. In early 2014, Obama signed an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for employees on new government contracts, which would include, for example, fast-food employees working at restaurants in the Smithsonian museums.

Opponents to minimum wage hikes argue, in part, that mandated wage increases would force businesses to lay off employees and would increase unemployment.

SEIU organizers said D.C. would participate in a national day of action next month in which home health-care workers throughout the nation rally for higher wages.