Your Grandma's Caretaker is Frighteningly Underpaid

April 5th 2015

Sandra Korn

Denise Rush is a home healthcare worker in Durham, N.C. She has been a homecare worker for over 20 years, 12 of those in North Carolina. To do this work, she must obtain a license with the state, earning credits to maintain her certification. Rush currently makes $9.50 per hour and is paid as a contractor through a homecare agency

I spoke with Rush the day after homecare workers in North Carolina -- along with fast food workers, childcare workers, and contingent college faculty members -- announced the biggest, low-wage worker action this state has ever seen. Their action on April 15th will coincide with a national day of action organized by the Fight for $15. Started by fast food workers, the Fight for $15 now includes low-wage workers from other industries, including homecare.

What do you do in your job as a homecare worker?

I do everything for the clients, from brushing their teeth to combing their hair, bringing them to doctor's appointments, and bringing them to outings to be sociable.

We treat them like they’re our grandpas, uncles, aunts, so that they’re taken care of properly, that they’re not getting sick. You still have to maintain their dignity and well-being.

Even though we have hands on one family member, we are actually taking care of whole families because that eliminates stress on the whole family.

I love [this work]. I love helping people. I love even more the personal experience, the people I have met along the way in different situations and circumstances. Being able to take care of people in their own home and not having to go into a facility-like setting.

What has your day today been like?

I live in Durham so I left Durham, came into Chapel Hill, and I’ve been here since 7 a.m. I’m working 7 to 3 in Chapel Hill then I’m going to take a break and go back into Durham. Then, I work 4-6 [at another client’s home].

On April 15th, homecare workers from all across North Carolina will be joining together in the Fight for $15. Why are you joining the Fight for $15?

In spite of loving what I do, [I have] a day-to-day struggle to gas my vehicle up, to pay a light bill. Most of the time in in-home care, you have to drive a vehicle to and from your home to a client’s home, and no agencies that I know of pay mileage. Most of the time, I have to drive over 25 miles to get to a place from my home. Mileage is not reimbursed. So it’s up to me to gas my vehicle up and maintain my home - which is impossible on the wages I make.

And a lot of our elderly don’t have their own vehicle, so you still have to go to the grocery store for them or go pick up their medicine for them or take them to a doctor’s appointment, whether the family is able to or not. You have to make sure that granny sees a doctor to make sure she’s okay because you don’t want her getting sicker.

If I made $15 an hour, I would be able to maintain my home better. I have two kids at home right now. [They are] doing very well in school, but I would be able to participate more in school activities because I would have the money for them to do things in school.

I have to have internet at home just because some of my childrens' homework has to be done via internet. So in order to keep up the internet bill, I have to work. Internet right now is a need. So do I pay the internet bill and put gas in my car and participate in something in school? It's a crazy balancing act that parents like me have to do on a daily basis.

Right now, I cannot afford to take a day off to give myself rest or a doctor’s appointment. Making $15 an hour would help me counterbalance it all, take a day off to go to the doctor to make sure that I’m well.

How would your life be different with $15 an hour?

Making at least $15 an hour, people are able to take better care of themselves, take better care of their families, and take better care of our clients. If you’re not feeling well and you go into someone’s home, you don’t want to risk passing whatever you have onto them and them passing on whatever they have to you, and you don’t know what’s going on because you don’t want to take a day off to go to the doctor.

I have co-workers who called me crying. They can’t afford child care, or if something happens to one of their babies, they can’t send them to day care. And I can’t afford to take a day off because then my check will be short, or I have to have no gas in my vehicle for the rest of the week. [$15 an hour] would simply balance things out. It’s not about going to get new vehicles or dressing up, it’s just living. Our basic human needs are not being met.

What do you want people to hear on April 15th?

Hopefully we’ll be able to unite in different parts of the state and actually bring awareness to people in authority that this is not helping. The minimum wage, $7.25, is not helping people.

We are not asking for a whole lot. We do what we do because we love what we do. All we want is to survive and take care of our families, so we can provide the excellent care that we already give to your families.