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Home care workers stand up, fight back

July 09, 2014 By Steve Fletcher, Executive Director

The wrong-headed Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn deserved a response. Tuesday, Minnesota home care workers delivered it, presenting  union election filing cards to the State Bureau of Mediation Services, triggering an organizing vote. The action reminds us that, contrary to some of last week’s misleading spin, nothing in Harris v Quinn prevents home care workers from organizing and forming a union. In fact, it affirms their right to do so. It was also a bold statement, to stand and announce the largest union election in Minnesota history in a week when pundits were fretting about labor's future or celebrating labor’s demise.

Yesterday, surrounded by a large, supportive crowd, caregivers and care recipients shared their stories about work, and struggle, and health, and love. We heard from Tyler, a young man whose partner needs constant care, and who often has to rearrange his life because of the constant turnover among caregivers working for such low wages. We heard from Shaquonica Johnson, who became a nurse because of her own family’s struggles getting access to adequate healthcare, and sees a clear connection between her poor working conditions and her own family’s health problems. We heard from Nikki Villavicencio, a care recipient who testified about the turmoil caused by inadequate wages and support for her caregivers. She asked a question we should all be wrestling with: “Why is this field so undervalued?”

As I argued last week, one reason home care work is undervalued is because it’s performed almost entirely by women and, disproportionately, by people of color. The invisibility and devaluation of work performed in the home is nothing new and certainly not an invention of Harris v. Quinn. In fact, workers launched the organizing drive last fall with union SEIU Healthcare MN, choosing the slogan “Invisible No More." These workers understood, long before Justice Alito reminded them last week, that their work was valued differently, less than, other labor.

Shaquonica Johnson drew a clear connection between race, gender, and healthcare injustice. She told the cheering crowd she was there to represent the thousands of workers who had signed cards expressing their intent to form a union and also to represent her ancestors, whose labor had been systematically erased by society. In her telling, the “Invisible no more” campaign resonated across time and space, offering the power of collective bargaining as a redemptive alternative to a legacy of discrimination and neglect.

Home care work is rendered invisible because we as a society don’t seem to want to know about the work they do. The elderly and disabled among us are often hidden away in their homes or in nursing homes, segregated, out of sight and out of mind, from the young and non-disabled. Our fear of mortality and fetishization of youth leads us to turn away from aging neighbors even as we maintain affection for the elderly and differently-abled in our own families. Yet, we all know in the back of our minds that someday, we or the people we love will need care, and may want the option to stay in our home. As the baby boom ages, demand for home care workers will only increase. Experts anticipate a shortage of home care workers. Fixing that shortage is especially important because quality home care saves our state healthcare system money compared to nursing homes.  Home care is smart state fiscal policy but only if we make it sustainable.

Home care workers are fighting for their patients’ health and well being, for their own health and well being, and for the quality of care we all deserve when we all eventually need it. They’re fighting for us all, and their collective strength offers hope that we might yet create a system of care for Minnesotans that sustains patients and workers together, and lets us all live with dignity.   

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