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Drive for Dignity: Home Healthcare Workers Take $15 Minimum Wage Campaign on the Road

By Mike Andrew 

Home healthcare workers and their supporters kicked off a new phase of the campaign for a $15 minimum wage with an 8:00 a.m. rally in front of Seattle City Hall on June 10.

With a banner reading “Drive for Dignity: $15 for Caregivers,” 60 caregivers set out on a three-day bus tour to take the $15-an-hour campaign statewide. The tour took them to Everett, the Tri-Cities, and Spokane, picking up additional supporters on the way.

The “Drive for Dignity” wrapped up with a June 12 rally of more than 100 people at Riverfront Park in Spokane.

Home healthcare workers offer vital services for seniors and disabled patients, often providing their clients’ only link to the outside world, but they are typically some of the state’s lowest-paid workers. In fact, state statistics reveal that as many as one-third of caregivers live in poverty.

“We see Seattle as the first step in winning $15 an hour for home healthcare workers statewide,” Sterling Harding, Vice President of SEIU 775NW, told The Retiree Advocate at the rally.

SEIU 775NW represents some 43,000 caregivers, and was the driving force behind the successful $15 minimum wage initiative in SeaTac last year. SEIU 775NW President David Rolf was also co-chair of the committee that drafted Seattle’s new minimum wage ordinance.

“We’re taking this around the state,” home health aide Sharon Kitchel told reporters at the rally, “to let other caregivers know we are a profession, we love our profession, and we should be treated with dignity.”

Kitchel now makes $10.98 and hour, and because she lives and works in Olympia, Seattle’s new minimum wage ordinance will not increase her income.

Wages for home healthcare workers start at $10.53 an hour, she explained, with a 15-25 cent increase after every 2,000 hours worked.

“There’s no way my wage will ever get to $15 that way!” she exclaimed.

Kitchel has worked in her profession for 23 years, and became an SEIU 775NW member in 2005. The union has made a huge difference in her life, she says.

“Before [joining the union] I barely made minimum wage, I didn’t get mileage, I couldn’t afford healthcare for myself. Once I joined [the union], I got a raise immediately, I got mileage, I get healthcare for $17 a month.”

Like Kitchel, most of the state’s caregivers are independent healthcare workers paid through Medicaid, and they bargain a new contract every two years. SEIU 775NW and the state’s negotiators began bargaining a new contract in May.

Caregiver Uba Adin told the rally that she makes $10.95 an hour, “not enough to make ends meet.” A $15 an hour wage would enable her to buy shoes and clothes for her children and still be able to take them out for dinner once in a while, she said.

“Things most people take for granted are things home healthcare workers struggle for,” Rihana Martinson told the rally.

Martinson works at Target, making $9.61 an hour, and will benefit from Seattle’s new minimum wage when it goes into effect April 1 next year. She was one of the fast food and retail workers who called a one-day strike last spring, kicking off the $15 an hour campaign in Seattle.

“I wanted to come and show my solidarity and support,” she said, “because everybody deserves a living wage.”

PSARA President Robby Stern was asked to speak at the Seattle kickoff rally. He expressed solidarity with the campaign.

“PSARA supports a $15 minimum wage throughout Washington,” he said. “Our members rely – or will rely – on home healthcare workers, and those workers need stable jobs with a wage of at least $15 an hour.

“I want to see people who receive care have a safe place to live, food on the table, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to enjoy all-important continuity of care. A $15 wage allows caregivers to stay on the job and also be able to save for education and their own retirement. That benefits our community.”

Also speaking at the rally was PSARA member Pramila Jayapal, former executive director of One America and candidate for the Washington State Senate from the Thirty-Seventh District.

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