http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/opinio...onstraop.shtml

Home care workers deserve better deal

Saturday, April 27, 2002

JOHN C. BOONSTRA
RELIGIOUS LEADER

To lead is to know painful reality. In an unusually shortsighted and penny-pinching act, Gov. Gary Locke has vetoed a small raise for home care workers.

Yet home care workers are some of the real invisible heroes of our society.

They help seniors and people with disabilities live in their own homes with dignity and independence. They bathe their clients, feed them, dress them and help them use the toilet. Without home care workers, thousands of elderly and disabled Washingtonians would be forced into nursing homes.

For this important and difficult work -- often 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- most home care workers are paid $7.68 an hour. Most receive no benefits. No health insurance. No sick days. No vacations. No pension. No workers' compensation.

This year the Legislature, after hearing from thousands of home care workers and consumers, took a tiny step toward paying these workers a living wage. In what was a tough budget year, they found $4 million to provide a raise of 25 cents an hour. Not enough, but better than nothing. Enough to at least partially offset an increase in rent and the always rising cost of living.

But then Locke vetoed the raise. Because the Legislature failed to pay a key revenue measure, the budget was still $31 million short. But there are many places Locke could have chosen to find that money. He could have reduced or eliminated consulting contracts. He could have pared the rapidly growing ranks of middle and upper management in our state bureaucracy. Or he could have left $304 million in the state's reserve fund rather than $308 million.

Instead, Locke decided to take $4 million away from those who provide care for many of the most vulnerable residents in our state -- away from caregivers, many of whom are living in abject poverty, are struggling to survive from month to month and are earning about half of what a self-sufficiency wage would be.

Locke argues that because home care workers may soon have a union, they should simply wait until next year when they negotiate a contract.

Which bills should home care workers put off until next year -- the phone bill or the electric bill? Which family member can wait until next year to see a doctor?

If Locke thinks it's no problem for 33,000 home care workers to live for the next year on $7.68 per hour, he should put himself into this painful reality: Forty hours a week at $7.68 an hour. Just over $300 per week. How does one try balancing a family budget with that for the next 52 weeks?

How does anyone decide between buying prescription drugs for his children and paying rent? How does anyone figure out how to get to work when the 15-year-old car breaks down and there is no money to pay for repairs?

No family vacations. No paid sick days. Not even an unpaid day off -- because at $7.68 an hour, we would need to work all the hours we could to put food on the table and a roof overhead.

Home care workers get no health insurance coverage. Locke should imagine what it is like to have to visit the emergency room or wait for hours at a community health clinic to see a doctor.

It's not clear why Locke decided to balance the budget by taking money out of the pockets of low-wage caregivers. Whatever the reason, Locke has been in public office long enough to understand what it's like to struggle to make ends meet. His decision gives the impression that he has no sense of the challenges faced by working Washingtonians, especially those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.