VIEW: Caring for Our Essential Infrastructure

Minnesota Women’s Press columnist Suzann Willhite at left

Invited by Kathy, a new friend in my 55+ building, I attended a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on July 13th to show support for care workers. One of the care workers speaking at the rally worked in our building for many years. Not knowing the details of the rally, I looked on the web for information about the event and the issues. The event was a call to action to support “Jobs, Care, Justice” for home care workers. These people were determined to be “essential workers” during the Covid pandemic, yet can barely survive on their wages, have minimal job benefits and little opportunity for job advancement.

The term “essential workers” became common language as the pandemic grew and now continues. But what does it mean? What makes someone’s job “essential” in a pandemic? I looked for information on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website for information and read that essential workers are “those who conduct a range of operations and services in industries that are essential to ensure the continuity of critical functions in the United States (U.S.).” 

Essential means fundamentally important, absolutely necessary, indispensable, critical.

How have we, as a society, treated these “1a phase” priority employees as “Essential Healthcare Workers” and “Essential Non-Healthcare Workers?”

Several speakers at the rally called for supporting President Biden’s $400 billion American Jobs Plan (AJP), which includes improving wages, benefits, and access to a union for care workers. The care workers at the rally were passionate, informative, and timely due to the additional strain of providing care for the ongoing pandemic.

These stories and needs are not new. Home care workers are essential, and we have not cared for or valued these workers as essential with adequate pay, benefits, and support.

Several of my older sisters have been personal care attendants (PCAs), home health aides, nursing assistants, domestic workers, or undefined home “help.” Some of my sisters worked for cash, which put more money in their pocket in the short term, but did not add to their long term social security benefits.

One of my summer jobs as a teenager was as a night attendant in a senior living facility in Northeast Minneapolis. I was expected, with no experience or training in health care, to make the rounds and check on seniors and persons with disabilities during the night shift. Lack of training, low pay, or pay without benefits is very common in these jobs.

A recent article in MS Magazine, documented that 85 percent of home health workers are women. A majority of women care workers are people of color and immigrants. They are also two and a half times more likely than their male counterparts to live in poverty.

In addition to dealing with poverty, many of these women also are juggling their own home and family care responsibilities. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.3 million people work as nursing assistants, home health and personal care aides, and in other health care support occupations. One-quarter of health care support workers are Black. Women account for three-quarters of full-time, year-round health care workers.

Women working as registered nurses — the most common health care occupation for women — had median annual earnings of $68,509. In contrast, women working as nursing assistants — the most common health care support occupation — earned $28,686.

LaTanya Hughes is a home care worker who spoke at the rally. She is also Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). She said there is currently a shortage of home care workers because of low wages. “They can go work at McDonald’s or Taco Bell for $14/hour. There is no incentive to being a PCA. There is no advancement to being a PCA. The benefits are slim to none.”

You will hear more about care workers as the U.S. Congress discusses the next “infrastructure” funding bills in the House and Senate. There is talk of “traditional infrastructure,” such as roads and bridges, and “human infrastructure” that focuses on the “care economy” of home care and child care. 

Will adequate care systems be included in the upcoming funding proposals?

We classify care work as essential. Will we support bills that value these workers with adequate training, fair wages, and benefits to show them how essential they really are?

Action Steps

Related Resources

Ms. Magazine: “As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 5 million women have left the workforce, women-dominated industries were economically hit the hardest by the pandemic, and experts predict employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. On top of job loss, women have undertaken heightened loads of unpaid labor during the pandemic. Child care responsibilities increased as a result of COVID-related school and child care center closures and remote work led to nearly 70 percent of mothers reporting adverse health impacts.”

To ensure passage the human infrastructure bill, House Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that the House will only vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill after the Senate approves the additional reconciliation bill.

CNN: What is in the reconciliation bill? — Unlike the bipartisan infrastructure package currently working its way through the chamber, the budget resolution would go through reconciliation, which under Senate rules means it can be passed with 50 Democratic votes alone. GOP lawmakers have already lashed out at the size of the budget blueprint and multiple provisions the Democrats are considering.

What is a reconciliation bill?

NPR: Why this infrastructure decision-making process is important.