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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Evans: In-home caregivers deserve a living wage

By Lauren Evans
Published: August 9, 2021, 6:01am

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and changed the way we see work. One thing people realized is what I’ve always known — in-home caregivers are the front lines of health care in our state.

My work keeps my clients, some incredibly vulnerable people, safe. Every day I go into my high-risk clients’ homes. I make sure they have food to eat and the medication they need. It’s my job to help someone out of bed, to help them get dressed, to help them to the bathroom — caregiving is intimate work, and a lot of it can’t be done from 6 feet away.

Like so many other essential workers, my hourly pay doesn’t match the risk I exposed myself to during the pandemic. I love my job, and my clients’ health and well-being rely on me. But my essential health care job didn’t pay the bills. It only increased my exposure to the virus.

When the State of Washington stepped up and started paying hazard pay of between $2.50 and $3 an hour during the pandemic — by directing federal dollars to those of us on the front lines of health care — it made a huge difference. With these increased wages, I was able to save up enough for a small apartment in a low-income building and move out of my mom’s house. My kids may not have their own rooms, but having a home of our own means the world to us.

The increased pay literally changed my life. And I’m one of many caregivers who feel this way.

The Center for American Progress and SEIU 775 just published a study with data from caregivers across the state demonstrating a troubling reality — while caregivers provide lifesaving services, we do so at the expense of our own livelihoods. This wage increase taught me that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Skipping meals

In the recent survey of more than 5,300 caregivers, 28 percent of caregivers reported that they “always” or “often” skipped meals or ate less for financial reasons before the pay increase. After the pay increase that number dropped to 10 percent of caregivers.

Chronic stress is common among caregivers, and the constant struggle to make ends meet has kept me up many nights with worry. I’ve experienced homelessness before and refuse to let that happen to my kids — even if that means leaving a profession I love. I’ve only been able to sleep since the increase in pay that’s come with the pandemic, with the help of prescription medication I couldn’t previously afford. More than 70 percent of caregivers surveyed reported that hazard pay noticeably reduced their stress about finances.

One major problem — because the increase in federal funding was temporary, so are the wage increases. Unless the state and/or federal government takes action, home care workers will see a wage cut of 15 percent at the end of 2021 — which could drive many caregivers out of the field.

It shouldn’t take a pandemic to make my essential health care job sustainable.

There are so many people who need care, but caregiving isn’t a viable profession unless things change. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposes a $400 billion investment in home care services and workforce, and the Better Jobs Better Care Act offers the funding needed to continue these critical wage increases so people like me can continue to provide care. It’s an opportunity to recognize caregiving as the in-demand health care profession that it is, and to begin providing essential permanent higher pay for essential work.

Writing this, I’m thinking of my children, my clients, and my community. We can’t afford to go back to the way things were. Caregivers were essential last year, and before the pandemic, and we’re still essential now. Respect us by supporting the American Jobs Plan so we can make a living wage for the lifesaving work we do.

Lauren Evans of Vancouver is an in-home caregiver.