Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65 years old. Every single day, without fail.
But as our population ages — and younger people with disabilities are able to live longer, more productive lives — our caregiving work force is not keeping up. Many of the fastest-growing jobs today are for direct-care workers; yet, for multiple reasons, these jobs are hard to fill.
And the needs keep on growing. Among Americans 65 and older, some 65 percent will rely on Social Security for half or more of their income and 70 percent will need some form of long-term services or support. While seniors make up the largest share of individuals receiving long-term services and support, 43 percent of recipients are younger than 65. Given these realities, we must do all we can so that seniors and people with disabilities, who need assistance, can continue to live meaningful lives with dignity.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work alongside Gilda, a home care worker in Chicago, to learn firsthand about this vital work. I participated in just a few of the wide range of caregiving services and supports that home care workers provide to make it possible for elders and people with disabilities to live independently and continue to participate in family and community life. This work is extremely challenging, but it is also absolutely essential to the future of our communities. Across the U.S, nearly 5 million home health aides, personal care aides, and certified nursing assistants who support elders and people with disabilities in their own homes, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.
Think about this. Home care workers, like Gilda, make sure their clients have meals to eat, take their medication and are able to take baths. These are vital necessities, but they are also very intimate moments. They clearly have a bond that was built with trust and time. Workers, like Gilda, are often more like family to those they care for. Our parents, sibling or any one of us might need care from someone like Gilda at a point in our lives.
In Illinois alone, there were nearly 163,000 direct-care workers in 2013, and that number continues to grow. Between 2012-2022, Illinois-based home health aide and personal care aide occupations are projected to grow by 42 percent and 30 percent, respectively, compared with 8 percent growth for jobs overall. Yet, despite this growing demand, wages remain low: the median hourly wage in the state is $10.18 for personal care aides and $10.56 for home health aides, compared to $17.18 for all occupations.
These very low wages make it difficult to support a family, and nearly half of home care workers must rely on public benefits, such as food stamps or Medicaid. Some home care workers have to take the next better paying job once it comes along. This results in extremely high turnover rates, leaving our most vulnerable in a very difficult position.
What can we do about this? In Illinois and in Congress, we have some important decisions to make. Are we going to continue to try to fund home care on the cheap – expecting consistent, quality care from women and men who cannot make ends meet for their own families? Or are we going to invest in this work force by providing adequate compensation and training to ensure that our communities have the strong, stable work force needed to meet the rapidly increasing demand for quality in-home services and supports? I believe we must fully support our seniors and the disabled – being willing to support those in need is part of what makes our country great.
Unfortunately, a new U.S. Department of Labor home care rule that would have extended federal minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers has been vacated by the U.S District Court. Rightly, the Department of Labor has appealed that decision. Home care workers deserve basic labor protections, which are afforded to most other workers in the nation.
Of course, these changes, as well a living wage for home care workers would require a financial commitment by the state and the people of Illinois. Home care services are often paid for through public programs like Medicaid, so we must ensure that the services are adequately and fairly funded.
By investing in its home care work force, Illinois has a real opportunity to improve job quality, address income inequality, and improve long-term services and supports, benefiting all of our families — because at one time or another we will all need quality care.
I am committed to doing all I can in Congress to promote policies that improve direct-care job quality, the quality of care for older adults and people living with disabilities and the efficiency of our service delivery systems for long-term services and supports. I urge my fellow Illinoisans to do the same.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky is a Democrat who represents Illinois 9th congressional district.