Faces of minimum wage: Home care worker ‘always back in the hole’

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Dorothy Carter, 87, of Woodlawn, had nine children with her late husband, Chauncey.

The youngest, 48-year-old Cornelia Simms, travels from her South Shore apartment five days a week, three hours nightly, to cook, clean and otherwise care for her mother.

Simms earns $10.25 an hour providing Medicaid-funded homemaker services to her mother, through Addus HomeCare Inc. State law allows relatives to fill those positions.

“I was in between homemakers. She was in between jobs. She said, ‘Mama, I’ll work for you.’ I’d rather have her than a stranger in the house,” Carter says. “And oooh, she’s a great cook! A great organizer too.”

In that job, Simms, who pays $545 a month for her studio, takes home $300 biweekly.

Then May through September, she picks up a part-time morning job as a canvasser for Community Organizing and Family Issues. The nonprofit advocacy group pays her $12.50 an hour to go door-to-door registering families for early childhood programs.

“Summer, I can bring home a good $900 a month. After summer, it’s $600-$700,” Simms says.

As a monthly Chicago Transit Authority pass costs $100, she often borrows someone’s.

Women’s groups at a recent roundtable held by Mayor Rahm Emanuel — he’s held several with targeted audiences on his proposal to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 an hour — noted women are a majority, 55 percent, of the city’s minimum-wage workers.

Meanwhile, advocates for the elderly and disabled like Simms’ mother argue Illinois’ current minimum wage makes it difficult to attract and keep quality home care workers critical to caring for the most vulnerable citizens.

In Illinois, minimum wage is $8.25 hourly, more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Simms says even with two part-time jobs that pay above $8.25, she has to borrow money between paychecks. And she is carrying some $10,000 in nearly 30-year-old student debt.

“I can’t pay what they [the loan] want on a monthly basis, because I’m behind on my rent and other things,” says Simms, who grew up in Robert Taylor Homes and Englewood.

“After October, I’m always back in the hole. I borrow from payday loan places, which right now I’m two months behind paying them back. I’ve borrowed from my bank against my direct deposit, which they’ve closed because I wasn’t getting funds into my account fast enough,” she says. “I borrow from relatives and friends, and you know that can be a problem when you say I can pay you back thus and so, and you can’t pay them back.”

Simms attended City Colleges of Chicago after high school to pursue her dream of entering law enforcement. She traded the dream 18 months later for security guard training at the now dissolved Metropolitan Business College of Chicago.

Becoming a licensed security guard in 1986, she worked in that industry 12-plus years.

Simms started out earning $8.25 an hour and worked her way up to $10 an hour before tiring of the unstable shifts and what she called tedious work guarding places like libraries, museums and theaters, college campuses and senior citizen buildings.

“There was just no fulfillment,” she says.

So in 2004, she traded security work for home care, initially earning $7 an hour.

“It’s very rewarding. It’s helping individuals that can’t help themselves,” she says. When Simms switched agencies to start working for Carter three years ago, it ended her mother’s revolving door of home care workers and weariness; she’d had something stolen.

And Simms’ mother, currently working on a second master’s degree — in biblical studies — isn’t your typical 87-year-old. She obtained a first master’s, in human services administration, from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, at age 79.

“I’ve been an early education teacher and a companion for the elderly. At my church I’m assistant pastor, I teach Sunday school, and I help with the finances,” Carter says. “Me with all my books and papers. Cornelia’s good at helping me clear some space.”

Her other children include a driver for United Parcel Service, an electrician, a school janitor, a bookkeeper, a business owner, a certified nursing assistant and two others who work in home care services. All entered the workforce with high school diplomas.

“They’ve all gone through tribulations. The Bible says the prayers of the righteous availeth much,” says Carter. “Cornelia struggles. I make sacrifices to help her.”

During a recent midday rest stop, Simms sat on her futon couch that doubles as a bed, worrying about a $57 electric bill due. She complains about her small income leaving her ineligible for food stamps.

“There’s not a lot of opportunities for people like me. No type of help whatsoever. They call me ‘independent,’ but I can’t be independent without making enough money to survive on,” she says, then sighs. “My landlord’s working with me. That’s a blessing.”

She got another blessing recently, a job with Working America, the AFL-CIO’s nonunion affiliate. She’ll do political electioneering canvassing for them into November.

“A $15 minimum wage would help me, so I wouldn’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul, lie to this one and that one, just to get by,” she says, running fingers through the graying hair around her temple. “I’d be able to pay my rent and all the people that I owe, and maintain a balance from month to month. That’s what I’m mainly concerned about.”

She tried to share that concern with the mayor when she ran into Emanuel recently.

“The mayor should have supported $15,” she says. “I was working for COFI at a fair, and he was there. I told him my name and what I do for a living, and I shook his hand. And he said, ‘Yes, we’ll raise it up.’ I said ‘How much?’ And he kind of gracefully walked away from me. He didn’t give me a chance to say $13 was not enough.”


Jessica Koscielniak

Email: mihejirika@suntimes.com

Twitter: @Maudlynei

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