A gorgeous teaching for this week: on Honi the circle-drawer
What I Carry

On caring for the home care workers who care for us


Image borrowed from Mercy Caregivers.

As part of my class in sage-ing last semester, I imagined my own death. We all did -- everyone in that class -- and once the meditation was complete, we talked about it with one another. I found it quite powerful to imagine what I might want my deathbed scene to be. I would like, if I have the choice, to die at home, surrounded by family and friends. I would like, if I have the choice, to go into that transition mindfully. To tell my loved ones that I love them, and then to consciously give myself permission to let go.

Of course, before that moment of death, there may be declining health. There will, I hope, be all the vagaries of old age. (I say "I hope" because if I don't get to experience old age, then I will have died sooner than I wish!) I want to die in the comfort of my own home, but before then, I expect I will need people who can care for me here.

I learned this week from the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Social Justice that most home care workers in the United States do not earn a living wage. They have been considered exempt from minimum wage and overtime laws.

Think for a moment about what that means. The people -- mostly women; often women of color -- who work as home care aides, caring for our sick and our elderly, holding their hands and providing their meds and washing their bodies and cooking their meals and doing all of the things that people in this field do every day -- they do this work without earning minimum wage, and without any protection against overtime and overwork. Flip burgers at a fast food joint, and you get minimum wage; care for the elderly or disabled in their own homes, and there's no such guarantee.

No small wonder that turnover in this field is incredibly high. It's work which is often difficult both physically and emotionally. These workers help those who are elderly and/or disabled to walk, to bathe, to eat, to dress, to take their meds on time -- and I suspect they often wind up providing a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear, which constitutes a kind of pastoral care in my book. What kind of society are we, that we value this work so little that we don't even ensure minimum wage for the people who do these holy tasks?

The number of people over 65 will nearly double in the United States over the next two decades. Most of us would prefer for our loved ones (and ourselves) to be cared-for at home, rather than being placed in a nursing home or other similar institution; overall, home care costs far less than institutionalized care, and it's also more personalized, more comfortable, more heimish. But what does it say about us that we allow the people who provide this care to work without a living wage and without protection from overwork?

Last December, President Obama proposed a rule change to the Fair Labor Standards Act which, if approved, will provide some measure of justice to American's 1.7 million home care workers who have long been exempted from minimum wage and overtime laws.  As things stand now, people employed in the home cleaning industry are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, but not those who care for our elderly and disabled family members. I'm glad to know that those who clean our houses are guaranteed minimum wage and reasonable working hours -- but chagrined to learn that our elder care workers don't receive the same treatment. We can do better than this. We must do better than this.

The U.S. Department of Labor is accepting public comments on the proposed change, which would correct part of a longstanding legacy of devaluing the work of women and African Americans. You can learn more about how to support the home care workforce at the PJA/JFSJ website; at that website you can also click over to submit a comment to the Department of Labor to tell them why this matters to you. Comments need to be submitted by February 27, so the time to speak up is now.