Debra Howze spends several hours a day with each of her two clients, one 94 years old and the other 100, who live in separate units of the same senior housing. She helps them bathe and dress, makes coffee, vacuums, takes out the garbage, cooks meals, does laundry and makes sure they get their medications.
“And I keep them company,” said Howze, 62, of St. Paul. “They need someone to talk to.”
She gets paid just over $13 an hour.
Howze was among a couple of dozen people who rallied at the State Capitol Saturday to demand that elected officials provide more support for personal care assistants.
The home care industry has long been in crisis because there aren’t enough workers to fill its low-paid positions, according to the Minnesota chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
COVID-19 has amplified the problem, requiring workers to find ways to protect the safety of their especially vulnerable clients.
A bill with bipartisan support that would have provided emergency wage and benefit increases for home care aides failed to pass in the final hours of the 2020 session, the union said.
“We’re being told that we and the people we care for are not important,” said Shari Lakey, a home care worker who spoke at the rally. “We are here today to tell you that we are important. We are on the front lines, and the people we care for deserve better.”
Jay Spika, who has disabilities caused by multiple sclerosis, said he has seen home care aides work three jobs to make ends meet. “I just don’t understand how lawmakers can hear our stories and our struggles and our cries and choose to ignore us,” he said.
“I think a lot of lawmakers are expecting people to get care from their families, and that’s not fair,” said Brittanie Wilson, 33, who uses a wheelchair.
Home care workers don’t provide medical care or physical therapy. Their job is to help people who, because of age or disabilities, can’t do some things for themselves — anything from bathing and dressing, to driving to doctor appointments and grocery stores.
They also provide company for people who otherwise suffer from social isolation.
Howze has a client who enjoys playing Scrabble and taking car rides. “She loves to see the changes in the trees,” Howze said.
She is already planning a caravan party next month for her centenarian client, who will celebrate her 101st birthday.
Howze has a third client, Spika, whom she sees on weekends. She receives about twice as much pay for his care because they were connected through an agency.
But when she works more than 40 hours in a week, she receives no overtime. She is not compensated for use of her car.
Her clients treat her like a family member and she feels the same way about them, she said. She doesn’t mind sometimes spending extra time with them off the clock.
“You can’t charge for every little thing,” she said.