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INTERVIEW: Home Care Consumer Stevie Bass on Fair Wages for Home Care Workers

February 14, 2013

Stevie Bass‘s 31-year-old daughter has multiple disabilities and requires around-the-clock care from a team of nine home care aides. When it comes to choosing her home care aides — who are hired through Mi Via, New Mexico’s self-directed Medicaid waiver program — Stevie’s daughter knows exactly the type of people she wants to care for her. 

“My daughter responds to people who are upbeat, creative, smile a lot — people with a positive outlook on life,” Bass said. She also leads an active lifestyle — she skis, swims, hikes — so she needs her aides to keep up with her. “She has to have an aide who is with her all the time — that aide has to ski!” Bass said. Stevie’s daughter relies on home care workers for a wide range of tasks: personal care, daily active exercise, yoga, cognitive drills, shopping, and meal planning and preparation.  

Bass, a member of the National Participant Network, has her own requirements for home health aides — they need to be paid a fair wage. In a recent Huffington Post article, Bass was quoted as saying that “direct-care staff cannot remain in [their] jobs without a good legal living wage.” Last month, she spoke up for better pay for home care workers during a quarterly meeting of the National Council on Disability.

In an interview with PHI last week, Bass re-emphasized her support for fair pay for home care workers. “They’ve got to be paid correctly,” she said. “It’s a travesty if they are not.”

Bass was referring to the poverty-level wages earned by most home care workers — in New Mexico, where she and her daughter live, the average wage for home health aides is just $9.22 an hour. But Bass was also talking about the fact that federal law excludes home care workers from basic labor protections, such as the right to a minimum wage and time-and-a-half pay for overtime hours.

Supporters of quality care and quality jobs are hopeful that a change is on the horizon. In December 2011, President Obama announced his intention to amend the “companionship exemption” of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a move that would finally extend those basic labor protections to home care workers.

But 14 months later, the companionship exemption remains intact. And some groups — including home care industry representatives and advocates for people with disabilities — have been vocal in their opposition to such a change. Some disability advocates, for example, say that they will have to cut their care workers’ hours to avoid paying them the time-and-a-half rate for overtime. They will have to hire more home care workers to make up for the hours lost, which they argue would be too difficult a task to manage.

Stevie Bass says that managing a larger staff of home care workers can be harder than managing one or two care providers — but it’s far from impossible. “People [with disabilities] seem quite concerned that they might need to hire a larger staff,” she said. “It may be a hard transition in the beginning, but you can do it. It’s a lot of work, but you can be successful.”

Indeed, for the last five years, the Bass family has had quite a lot of success managing a staff of nine home care workers — none of whom work more than 40 hours a week, under the terms of the Mi Via program. In her experience, Stevie said, home care workers would “rather work fewer hours and get paid better than work a lot of hours and paid worse.”

The bottom line, Stevie said, is that home care workers — like all direct-care workers — need to be respected as professionals. They need to have the same basic labor protections as other workers, and they need to make a decent wage in order to be effective caregivers. 

“If you don’t get paid properly, you can’t function. You’ve got to be paid well,” she said. “My overall view is that care workers need to be looked at with great respect — it’s a real profession.”

— by Matthew Ozga

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