Colorado home care workers warn lawmakers of ‘crisis level’ shortages caused by low pay

Amid high turnover, labor groups urge passage of ‘Care Worker Bill of Rights’

By: - July 13, 2022 5:00 am

Members of Colorado Care Workers Unite, SEIU Local 105 and other labor groups rallied in support of a Care Worker Bill of Rights outside the Capitol on July 12, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

In more than 15 years as a home care worker, Marilyn Rowe has dealt with a lot. There are few easy days on the front lines of providing at-home health care services to her elderly or disabled patients, some of whom Rowe has seen for a decade.

But lately, she says, working conditions in the industry have taken a turn for the worse. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortage of personal protective equipment drove workers to resort to wearing oven mitts and other improvised solutions. The wages paid by for-profit providers haven’t kept up with living costs, and Rowe is among the many home care workers who have filed wage theft complaints over unpaid hours.

“It takes a certain type of person to be in this industry,” Rowe said in an interview outside the Colorado Capitol Tuesday. “You’ve got to have a heart.”


Increasingly, say advocates for care workers and their patients, the strain being put on the industry’s workforce is driving high turnover, worker shortages and a “massive gap in care” that is reaching a crisis point.

At a rally on the steps of the Capitol, members of Colorado Care Workers Unite and other labor groups urged lawmakers to address the crisis by passing a “care worker bill of rights.”

Advocates want the potential legislation to include guaranteed “livable wages,” minimum benefits and travel compensation; stronger protections against wage theft and other employer violations; a reporting system for workers who experience harassment, assault or discrimination on the job; and more “decision-making power” for workers in the home care industry.

Jose Torres-Vega, an activist with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition who requires home care, spoke in support of such measures at Tuesday’s rally.

Care workers “become part of our family,” he said. “They allow us to have the life that we deserve.”

Nearly 90% of the 2.3 million home care workers in the U.S. are women, and 62% are people of color, according to the nonprofit Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute. They care for all kinds of patients, from children with congenital disorders to adults with traumatic brain injuries to elderly people with dementia or Alzheimers — and in addition to providing health care treatment, they’re often relied upon for housework, errands and companionship, too.

Marilyn Rowe, a Colorado home care worker, speaks to a crowd rallying in support of a Care Worker Bill of Rights outside the state Capitol on July 12, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

“They go well above and beyond what is required of them,” Torres-Vega said. “And yet we’re not giving them what they deserve.”

Melissa Benjamin, who worked in the home care industry for 20 years and is now a health care organizer for SEIU Local 105, applauded Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado lawmakers for a 2021 budget provision that required state-funded direct care workers to be paid a $15 an hour minimum wage, but said more was needed. Advocates at the rally called for a $24 hourly minimum wage for care workers.

“It gave a good bump to care workers, especially in rural areas,” Benjamin said of the wage hike, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2022. “But it’s not enough.”

In the coming years, demographic trends could put further stress on the home health care system. State demographers estimated in 2019 that Colorado is the third fastest aging state in the nation. Its over-65 population is projected to grow by nearly 50% between 2018 and 2030, and tens of thousands of additional care workers will be needed to make up the difference.

Already, however, “crisis level” worker shortages mean that many patients are forced to remain on waiting lists or receive suboptimal care, advocates say.

Rowe said that it can sometimes be hard to put on a smiling face for her patients, given that she and other care workers can go home worrying about whether they’ll be able to pay their bills or afford to drive to work the next day. But even amid the high turnover, she said, leaving the industry isn’t an easy decision, either.

“I get attached to my clients,” said Rowe. “If I’m not there, who’s going to take care of them?”


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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.