Home care workers are riding the momentum of the national movement to raise the minimum wage, seeking higher pay for a job that is essential to the lives of millions of American families.
But in pushing for a raise to $15 an hour, similar to their peers working in the fast food industry, they must navigate a tricky conflict in progressive political priorities: on the one hand, increasing compensation for low-wage workers, and on the other, making childcare and elder care more affordable for working families.
On Tuesday, Democratic Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon and other representatives introduced a House resolution recognizing the need for a stable, reliable care system and a living wage for workers. The resolution's ambitious goal: to make care affordable through subsidies while ensuring $15 an hour in pay for care providers.
"No one who is caring for and educating our children should have to live in poverty, and no one should be pushed into poverty because of the cost of child care for their kids," said Congresswoman Bonamici in front of the Capitol Tuesday.
Worker advocates say they don't see competing forces at play in their dual aims of increasing affordability and access. They say changes in policy and new funding models can thread the needle — including expansion of subsidies, new Department of Labor regulation, and private partnerships, such as with Care.com.
"Is there a tension between expanding the program and increasing wages for caregivers? We don't see it as a tension," said Vivien Labaton, co-director of the Make it Work campaign, which aims to make care reform a central issue in the 2016 election. "We need to look at what families need and expand to meet that need."
Labaton said Make It Work sees the issue as one that could be solved with enough "political will."
The group's official proposal calls for "significant investment" in the Childcare and Development Fund, as well as changes to the existing care subsidy system, which currently covers only a fraction of children who are eligible, according to Labaton. Only 17% of children who qualify are currently receiving federal child care assistance, the lowest number since 1997, the house resolution notes.
More public spending to subsidize higher pay for home care workers is unlikely to gain support in a Republican-controlled congress, but advocates are pushing to make both sides of the issue — higher pay and cheaper care — part of the national debate.
"Families who are struggling to get by, to provide care – either themselves or by paying others – think of their challenges as their own personal problems rather than a national challenge with national solutions," said Julie Kashen, a Senior Policy Advisor to Make It Work. "But the public perception is starting to change."
Dawn O'Neal, 48, who spoke outside the Capitol Tuesday, cares for 19 three-year-olds in a classroom with a second teacher for about eight hours a day. She feeds, changes, and nurtures the kids, and helps manage the class, for $8.50 an hour, after 15 years in care work.
While she said she loves what she does, O'Neal first entered the field because she couldn't afford care for her own kids. "When I worked at Head Start, I could take them to work with me, and I wouldn't be charged a lot," she said.
Currently, the average child care center worker earns $10.60 per hour and has experienced no increase in real earnings since 1997, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.
That means if New York's Labor Commissioner approves the a recent recommendation by the state's Wage Board of a $15 minimum wage in the fast food industry, McDonald's staff in the state will soon make nearly 50% more than the national average wage for child care workers.
In January, home care workers were poised to get a boost in pay when a federal reform was set to go into effect guaranteeing those workers minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (which has historically excluded the home care sector). Instead, the regulation remains tied up in courts, after a judge ruled that in applying the law to home care, the Department of Labor was "trying to do through regulation what must be done through legislation."
Notably, one of the plaintiffs in the suit fighting against the regulation, siding with the Home Care Association, is the International Franchise Association — the restaurant-backed business group that is combating attempts across the country to raise the minimum wage.
"Clearly the fear of having to spend more money is part of the hold up here," said Kashen, of Make It Work. "But our opponents are missing the point."
Kashen said the public and private spending on higher wages would both stabilize families and be spent quickly and locally, immediately stimulating neighborhood economies. It would also lead to more productive, loyal employees and reduced turnover, all of which, advocates say, would help increase the affordability and accessibility of care.
The push for higher wages notched a victory in June, when 35,000 unionized home care workers in Massachusetts won an unprecedented starting wage of $15 per hour in an agreement with the office of Republican Governor Charlie Baker. The contract will take effect in July 2018.
And this latest initiative by advocates follows a week with many moving parts in the Fight for 15 across the board.
The New York Wage Board, convened by Governor Cuomo, recommended a $15 wage floor for fast-food workers throughout the state, while on the west coast, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to raise the county's minimum wage to $15 an hour. The University of California system announced it would raise its minimum to $15 an hour for all workers, included subcontracted ones, and the District of Columbia certified a proposal to raise its minimum to $15, to be voted on in 2016.