Gay-Dagnogo: Caregivers deserve a living wage

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo

Although among the fastest-growing sectors of today’s workforce, caregivers are also among the worst paid, with the smallest benefits and schedule flexibility of all low-wage workers.

Whether caregivers serve children, the elderly, the disabled or terminally ill, they generally receive little official respect and compensation for the critical role they play in keeping society functioning.

Many, in fact, are female heads of households who are grappling with poverty, illness and a lack of insurance, even as they keep health care facilities running by doing work others refuse to.

The fact is, home health care and services for the elderly and people with disabilities are now the industries with the fastest and second-fastest rates of growth of employment in the US. And based on the aging population — by 2050, the elder population is expected to more than double — the country will need one million new home care workers by 2022. But also according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these workers are among the lowest paid.

In 2013, the country’s two million home care workers had average annual earnings of $18,598, according to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project. Average annual earnings for all wage and salary workers in the United States were $46,440.

The result: nearly 50 percent of home care givers live in households that receive some form of public assistance, the study found.

This has to change. The fact that we entrust our children and parents with these workers and yet not compensate them adequately for their services is a national disgrace. That’s why I am standing with home care workers and child care workers in their fight for $15 an hour, by all accounts what amounts to a livable wage for workers.

Most of these personal care providers have children themselves. If these under-appreciated, undervalued and underpaid workers were to decide not to put up with such unfair labor practices and either strike or simply leave the business, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of chaos and confusion that would ensue.

Not only would businesses be left without critical employees, but families would lose the security and stability offered by nannies and child care workers. It would have a ripple effect across society and the workforce, completely disrupting the lives of many professional and middle class families with children, elderly or disabled loved ones. That could be an unimaginable burden for some.

Yet such a scenario is not implausible. Take our rapidly aging population and couple it with the ultra-low wages and paltry benefits of a job to make elderly and disabled people comfortable, and you have a disaster in the making.

We can avoid this problem by fairly compensating our personal caregivers. It is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing as well.

State Rep. Sherry Gay –Dagnogo D-Detroit represents the 8th District.