Cassandra Matthews, a 23-year veteran of the home health care industry, speaks at a rally in support of a Home Care Workers Bill of Rights outside the Colorado Capitol on Sept. 13, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
The organizers of a group representing home health care workers in Colorado said Tuesday that more than 50 lawmakers and legislative candidates have signed on to support increased protections and benefits for workers in an industry that advocates say has been stretched far too thin.
The Home Care Workers Bill of Rights includes higher wages and benefits, protections against wage theft and harassment, and more “decision-making power” for workers. While legislation hasn’t materialized yet, ahead of the 2022 midterm elections and next year’s legislative session, activists are hopeful that they could soon see the results of years of organizing on behalf of Colorado’s roughly 60,000 care workers.
“We’ve heard over and over again the challenges that our home health care workers are facing,” state Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Thornton, said at an event on the steps of the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday. “Low wages. Bad conditions. Wage theft. Companies that don’t treat them fair.”
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Flanked by other Democratic lawmakers and members of Colorado Care Workers Unite and other labor groups, Winter recounted her own recent experience needing a home care worker. More than 70% of people will receive home care at some point in their lives, according to the Colorado Health Institute.
“They deserve to be treated with the same love, the same compassion, the same dignity that they show every one of us,” she said. “We’re getting ready to go back into session next year, and take what we said and turn it into policy.”
Cassandra Matthews, a CCWU activist, spent more than 23 years as a home care worker. She fought back tears Tuesday as she described the working conditions that she faced and ultimately drove her out of the industry.
People ask us, why do we stay in this industry? ... It's because we learn to love our clients.
– Cassandra Matthews, of Colorado Care Workers Unite
“I worked 16 hours a day taking care of other people’s families, and not having time to take care of my own,” she said. “It’s not right.”
“People ask us, why do we stay in this industry?” Matthews added. “It’s because we learn to love our clients.”
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 provide care for a wide variety of patients, ranging from children and adults with disabilities to elderly people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. But despite serving as an integral part of the health care system, care workers often lack health insurance of their own, and often don’t have guaranteed sick leave or paid time off, either.
In 2021, Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado lawmakers approved a budget provision requiring state-funded home care workers to be paid a $15 an hour minimum wage, but advocates say more is needed, especially with the demand for home care expected to continue to grow.
State demographers estimated in 2019 that Colorado is the third fastest aging state in the nation, with its over-65 population projected to grow by nearly 50% between 2018 and 2030. Experts say tens of thousands of additional care workers will be needed to make up the difference.
In addition to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, care workers and their advocates lay much of the blame for the state of the industry on private providers who are incentivized to maximize reimbursements from health insurers while minimizing their employees’ wages and benefits. Reports of wage theft and other labor violations are common.
“These companies are charging the insurance companies and they’re not passing it on to the home care workers,” said Matthews.
With high turnover rates and labor shortages reaching critical levels, advocates say it’s time for lawmakers to enact regulations that not only increase protections for workers, but give them a voice in shaping the future of a vital part of the health care system.
“Right now, decisions about the health care industry are being made by those who are making the profits,” said Melissa Benjamin, a former care worker and CCWU organizer. “It’s time for the real experts, the care workers, to be a part of the decision-making process, so we can truly build a care industry that works for Coloradans now and in the future.”
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