Elder care wages: Workers living In poverty


By Al Norman

In a recent radio address, President Barack Obama said: “No woman who is working full time should have to raise her children in poverty.”

Let me introduce you to Deborah Harris (not her real name). Deborah recently told me about her work as someone who provides care at home for elderly clients:

“I am 59 years old, and I work as a certified home health aide. I know what its like to be a caregiver. I cared for both my mom and my dad before they died — at home. Now I care for older people as my daily job. I make $11.50 an hour, and usually work 35 hours a week. My total pay last year was $16,828. My two kids are grown now, but if I was a mom raising two kids, what I make is 15 percent below the federal poverty level for a family of three.

“I have health insurance through my employer. But I get no vacation time. I get no sick time. If I wake up and I am not feeling well enough to visit my clients, I make nothing that day. I am almost old enough now to be a client of the home care program.

“I have been caring for my clients for three years now. I usually visit with four elders a day, traveling back and forth between Burlington, Woburn and Wilmington. I get mileage, but it doesn’t cover the wear and tear on my car.

“I have never had a raise. But like everyone else, I have to pay for rising gas prices at the pump, for higher heating costs at home and for groceries and utility bills. I love the work I do with seniors, but when I look at my paycheck, I worry about my future. There are 17,000 people like me out there every day — and that worries me even more.”

I also spoke recently with Cathy Renfrew (also not her real name). She is a care manager who works with the elderly. She told me that in 2011, she began working as a care manager with the elderly in Boston. “I’ve continued to work there for the past three years. Despite having a master’s degree, my starting salary was a little over $36,000. I didn’t go into this field to make the salary of a hedge fund manager — but if you could put a price tag on keeping an elder living independently at home — what we do is worth millions.

“At times, I’ve had a caseload of over 150 elders, making 10 home visits a week,” said Renfrew. “I’ve seen some truly heartbreaking things — elders living in poverty, alone, frail, with home conditions that are hard to imagine. Many of my consumers have mental health issues, and don’t speak English. Despite the stress, high caseload and low pay, I know firsthand that care managers are often the only source of hope and compassion in our elder’s lives.

“Most care managers are women. Most of us have a college degree. I have a bachelor’s from Albertus Magnus College and a master’s in social work from Boston College. Today I owe over $70,000 in student loans, plus interest. I rent an apartment, have car payments, medical expenses and buy groceries — a pretty basic lifestyle. What frustrates me is I know that today, the same job I do pays $14,000 more if done by a state worker. This is even higher with a master’s degree. And I don’t get a state pension.

“Why doesn’t this state take better care of its caregivers? The turnover rate among home care managers is almost 25 percent a year. Every four years, an entire agency’s staff has changed. And since July, we are no longer eligible for the human services salary reserve. The state budget account that pays for my salary, and pays for the rent, heat and all the support staff at my agency — and at all the Aging Services Access Points — has been frozen for five years. It’s time to pay a decent wage to the caregivers who take care of our elders. Give us a wage we can live on.”

Deborah and Cathy are among the thousands of workers in Massachusetts who take care of frail elderly. It’s time for our state to take care of the people who take care of our elders.

Al Norman is the executive director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at info@masshomecare.org, or at 978-502-3794.