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Op-ed: Pass plan to support home care workers, seniors

Throughout this pandemic, home care workers like me have been risking our lives on the front lines to keep our clients safe and healthy. COVID has shined a harsh light on a growing crisis facing West Virginians. We now have the third-oldest population in the nation, and even though demand for home care services is growing exponentially, poverty wages have created a severe workforce shortage, so seniors and people with disabilities simply can’t find the support what they need.

To address this crisis, President Biden has proposed a crucial plan, which would invest in quality home and community-based services. Unfortunately, some of our state’s politicians have argued against investing in seniors and working families. What they fail to acknowledge is that Biden’s plan would not only make sure our aging population is well taken care of, but would also create thousands of good, middle-class union jobs and spur West Virginia’s economic recovery.

Since becoming a home care worker, I have taken care of many seniors ranging in age from their 60s to their 90s, and have always strived to make sure they have the very best quality of life. I cook healthy meals, do their grocery shopping, take them to doctor’s appointments, help them exercise, do housekeeping and laundry, and remind them to take their medications.

Beyond supporting my clients’ physical health, I see my home care work as a higher calling to raise them up on a mental, emotional and spiritual level. I’ve had several clients who are religious, and so I’ve downloaded a lot of hymns to my tablet, which I’ve played for them as we sing along. At one point, I learned that two of my clients hadn’t been able to go to church for years, so on my Sundays off, I brought them to worship services. They were so incredibly happy, and their smiles were priceless.

Despite going above and beyond for our clients, home care workers are drastically underpaid, with the average wage in West Virginia just $11 an hour. And most lack healthcare, paid sick days or any other benefits from their employers. I used to work three jobs in order to make ends meet, often more than 50 hours a week. But then I developed debilitating pain in my neck and back, along with other ailments. Because of my disability, I had to cut down on my work schedule and now just have my home care job.

Working one job should be enough to survive in America, but shamefully low wages make that almost impossible. Because this work has historically been done by women and people of color, we’ve been undervalued and held down for too long.

At 57 years old, I have no financial security or retirement savings whatsoever, and many of my co-workers are just a paycheck away from homelessness.

This is not the American Dream that the people of West Virginia were taught in our childhoods, it’s more like a nightmare. Dead-end jobs are not just painful for home care workers, but they’re also making it extremely difficult for seniors to find quality services.

With baby boomers reaching retirement age, people over the age of 65 now make up 20% of our state’s population. Despite soaring demand for home care, very few people want to go into the field, creating an extreme shortage of workers.

Home care workers have been raising alarms across the country, and Biden has listened, proposing a plan that would be a major step forward. His plan would invest $400 billion in home and community-based services and create one million new care jobs nationwide. Our state could receive up to $220 million in funding, which would help generate almost 5,000 care jobs and an additional 15,000 jobs indirectly.

Under this proposal, home care workers would receive living wages, basic benefits and job training. That means we wouldn’t always be living in fear of financial disaster, and could make ends meet without having to work two or three jobs. And the plan would make sure we have the choice to join a union, just like many generations of proud West Virginians before us.

We need Congress to sufficiently fund home and community-based services so we can create good jobs, fully recognize this vital work that is done mostly by women, and ensure that more people — from rural to urban areas — have access to affordable, quality care. If our elected leaders don’t invest enough resources, the workforce shortage will continue to grow, increasing the long waiting list for services.

That’s why I’m passionately calling on all our U.S. senators and congress members to be on the right side of history and pass Biden’s plan, so we can support our seniors and put our broken economy on the right track.

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