‘Age of Dignity’ Author, Caregivers Call for Home-Worker & Immigrant Rights
SAN FRANCISCO–Pam Tau Lee recently faced an unintended consequence of U.S. immigration policy when one of her parents’ care workers called from a Texas detention center.
Frightened and in tears, caregiver Joy had been stopped on a bus ride to Florida where she was going to see her grandson turn one year old and attend a family reunion. Immigration officials confiscated Joy’s medications, Lee said, and held Joy for a month before an immigration attorney could secure her release pending her hearing this month.
Joy is one of 2 million care workers in the United States, many of them immigrants, who are called on to serve the nation’s rapidly aging population even as they struggle to get by with little pay and few job protections.
Lee, who chairs the Chinese Caregiver Association in San Francisco, says her father at first didn’t answer when he got the call from the Texas detention center. He didn’t know what, “Do you accept a collect call?” meant. Eventually, he answered.
Pathway to Citizenship
“Many of our caregivers are undocumented,” said Lee during a recent San Francisco panel discussion on domestic workers’ rights sponsored by the Rosenberg Foundation. “For the sake of humanity, [change] must include a pathway to citizenship.”
Also on the panel, Ai-jen Poo, codirector of the nonprofit Caring Across Generations, stated that a pathway to legal status and citizenship for the undocumented care workforce is “core to our vision. Immigrant workers are going to be a huge part of the solution for the future of caregiving,” she said, as the population of seniors doubles with the aging of the baby boom generation.
A 2014 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, Poo continued, “In order for the care infrastructure to be secure, it has to be out of the shadows and in the full light of our economy and our society. In order for that to happen, immigration reform has to happen.”
She was optimistic that President Obama’s executive order on immigration “will move forward,” despite the current federal court challenge in Texas. Meanwhile, Poo said, her organization is working to get federal legislation introduced “that would create a path to citizenship for the undocumented care workforce.”
Acknowledging that the U.S. House of Representatives is “incredibly toxic and polarized,” Poo believes a bill on elder care could help “change the conversation” on immigration.
Besides federal action, she said, immigrant rights advocates “should continue to look for state and local policy changes,” such as California’s new law permitting undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.
Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights
Poo, who is currently touring to promote her new book, the Age of Dignity, has already proved effective on moving legislation. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which Poo also directs, led the successful campaign to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which guarantees privately employed nannies, housekeepers and caregivers of elders, with an eight-hour daily work schedule, overtime pay, protection from discrimination and sexual harassment, among other rights.
Since it was first passed by New York State in 2010, versions of the law have been officially adopted by other states including Hawaii, California and Massachusetts with more pending.
In Washington, the Obama administration saw a federal-court reversal of its attempt to extend greater protections to the nation’s home care aides. Those workers have been excluded since 1974 from the Fair Labor Standards Act because they’ve been categorized as mere “companions,” such as babysitters or friendly visitors, who might play games or take walks with a family member.
In a 2013 rule change, the Department of Labor (DOL) tightened the law’s definition of “companionship services,” so that home care employees could start receiving minimum wage and similar benefits.
But in January, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon sided with the Home Care Association of America, which sued the department alleging the rule change would make care unaffordable for many small home care providers. DOL is appealing the decision.
Poo dramatized the plight of elders in the United States who fear being placed in a nursing home by describing her paternal grandfather’s final months, which, she said, “will haunt me forever.” Liang Shao Pu was healthy until, at age 93, his family could no longer care for him and could not find appropriate home care. He quickly declined in a facility that she said “smelled like mold and death.”
Grandmother ‘Living on Her Own Terms’
In contrast, her mother’s mother, 89, is thriving at home with the care and companionship of Xue Mai Sun. Noting that she “just celebrated the year of the ram-goat-sheep with her,” Poo said her grandmother “lives in her own apartment in Southern California, across from a Chinese grocery, not far from a Chinese hair salon that knows how to do her perm just right. She goes to church and even sings in the church senior choir. And she’s living life on her own terms.”
Mrs. Sun, she explained, not only helps Poo’s grandmother with difficult things like lifting, cleaning and cooking, but she and her husband recently took on driving her to church regularly after the elder fell while running to catch a bus.
Poo stressed, though that the vast majority of older Americans cannot count on aging at home with the reliable support of a caregiver like Mrs. Sun.
“Their wages are unfathomably low,” she said, averaging only $13,000 a year. “It’s so low that these mostly women of color we count on to care for our aging loved ones can’t afford to care for their own loved ones.”
She added that “30 percent of the home care workforce must rely on public assistance for food security. We’re still fighting for basic security and protections.”
As most seniors caught in this country’s fragmented long-term care system end up in nursing homes, Poo said, “The dark ending that my grandfather faced is actually too costly. There’s the emotional cost of what he endured and our feeling of failure, but there’s also a financial cost. The average nursing home stay costs $87,000 per year, which is unimaginable for millions of people.”
Poo said that economists working with Caring Across Generations estimate that for five percent of the U.S. defense budget, “we could insure that every single elder in this country has long-term care and assistance in the way that they want it.”
Families Can’t Afford Needed Care
Affordability is also a major issue for families accessing home care, said panelist Emma Delgado, a caregiver and an organizer with Mujeres Unidas y Activas. Speaking Spanish with an English-language interpreter, she told the audience of 150, “We see most employers don’t even have the resources for the care that they need.”
One family she worked for could not absorb the cost of the 24-hour care they needed and could only pay for limited periods.
Delgado, who immigrated from El Salvador and also provides care for her elderly mother, said, “We need to understand that this is really difficult and honorable work, and we need more people to be trained and comfortable in doing it.”
She called for better public information about care workers, as well as more protections for the workers themselves. Delgado added, “As a worker, I need to feel when I’m going into someone’s home that I am trusted, but also that I can trust the people that I’m working for.”
Source: News America Media