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Home care workers in California could get more bargaining power with proposed bill

Kate Wolffe
In-home care recipient Russell Rawlings, his caregiver Darrow Sprague and Kern County caregiver Sydney O'Connor stand with members of United Domestic Workers and SEIU Local 2015 at a press conference at the California State Capitol on Feb. 20, 2023.

A new bill proposed in the California legislature would allow in-home care workers to bargain with the state for better working conditions, instead of on a county-by-county basis.

Over 650,000 people who are elderly, disabled or sight impaired rely on home care aides to help them with daily tasks through the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program, or IHSS. These tasks include bathing, dressing, eating, cleaning and cooking. About 550,000 work through IHSS and most are women of color, according to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute.

Assembly Bill 1672, authored by Assembly member Matt Haney, a Democrat representing San Francisco, aims to bolster that labor force and give it more collective bargaining power with the Department of Health Care Services. According to Haney, 30 counties in California don’t have a contract with their in-home service providers and the majority pay either the minimum wage of $15.50, or one or two dollars above it.

In 2021, an audit of the IHSS system found that it’s not meeting the needs of the number of people who require and desire home-care services. The state’s former auditor, Elaine Howell, found that in 2019, 40,000 people weren’t able to access the amount of care they needed.

The audit also found that the current system isn’t built to accommodate the growing population of seniors, which is forecasted to reach 8.5 million in 2030, up from six million in 2019.

“When we don't provide for [home care workers], we have to pay more on the back end,” Haney said. “People who can't receive care at home and are forced to be institutionalized as a result cost the state and counties a lot more.”

Rachel Gonzales, who cares for her nonverbal 11-year-old daughter Grace in northern Sacramento County neighborhood Mather, said advocating for herself and her daughter has become a second full time job. She added that trying to manage responsibilities while bargaining for an hourly wage increase is “mind-bogglingly difficult.”

Gonzales said most people get into this line of work because, like her, they need to care for a sick family member and their options for advancement are limited.

“I realize how important collective bargaining is in situations like mine where we can't strike,” she said. “Who am I going to strike on? My child? Refuse to care for her and put her in an institution to prove to the state that I am benefiting [them]?”

Oak Park resident Russell Rawlings has cerebral palsy and sleep apnea and needs his in-home caregiver, Darrow Sprague, to help him with getting out of bed and bathing, along with many other tasks. Rawlings moved to California in 2001 from Texas to be close to more independent living resources. But he said he’s had a difficult time retaining in-home care and is currently struggling to find someone to help relieve Sprague during his time off.

“We have really, really struggled to find somebody to work part time hours because the wages are so low,” he said.

Service Employees International Union Local 2015 and United Domestic Workers represent more than 500,000 workers. The two organizations have come together to support the proposed legislation. SEIU 2015 president Arnulfo De La Cruz said to keep people in these jobs, the state needs to offer training, benefits and higher wages.

“If I'm a caregiver right now and I can make more working at a local cafe, maybe doing work that's a lot less taxing, that's too easy of a decision to make,” he said.

The California Department of Social Services, which runs the IHSS program, and the Department of Health Care Services, which would be bargaining with the unions for their contract, declined to comment on the proposed legislation.

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